Australia has signed a new security deal with Oceania island country Vanuatu as part of an ongoing competition with China for influence in the Pacific.
The new security pact covers humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, law enforcement, cybersecurity, defense, border security, and maritime safety. The full text of the agreement has yet to be released.
“We all have a responsibility to ensure our sovereign decisions enhance the security of all members of the Pacific and we’re deeply proud to be the Vanuatu principal security partner of choice,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told reporters Tuesday in the capital of Port Vila.
Earlier this year, China signed a security deal with Solomon Islands, raising alarm that it could lead to a military buildup in the South Pacific. China also tried unsuccessfully to have 10 Pacific nations sign a sweeping deal covering everything from security to fisheries.
Australia has been countering China’s moves with its own Pacific island-hopping diplomatic missions.
Wong said decisions about how Pacific countries wish to engage with Australia, the level of cooperation they seek, and what they choose to prioritize, are all issues for each individual nation.
The delegation led by Wong also took part in a handover of a new wharf and a police boat. The wharf was built as part of Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program.
From Vanuatu, the delegation travels to Palau and then Micronesia. Palau is one of the few remaining nations that continues to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than China.
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said economics should not be used to influence its policies.
“There’s a lot of Chinese investment in Palau. I think they’re the No. 1 foreign investor now. This changes the political dynamic,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “There’s been pressure on us to switch to China, and Palau has been strong and saying that we are enemies to none and friends to all and no one should tell us who our friends should be.”
Whipps also applauded Australia for increasing its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target to 43 percent by the end of the decade, but wanted to see it go further.
“We would like to see a 50 percent reduction by 2030,” he told the broadcaster.
Many Pacific nations view climate change as their biggest challenge and an existential threat because sea level rises and stronger storms threaten to swamp many low-lying islands.