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Australia pledges $250m to Solomon Islands as China’s influence in Pacific grows

Scott Morrison to unveil bilateral infrastructure program as part of latest plank in government’s regional strategy

Scott Morrison has declared “stepping up is all about showing up” as he unveiled the latest plank of the Australian government’s Pacific strategy during a visit to the Solomon Islands.

The prime minister’s visit – the first by an Australian leader to the island nation since 2008 – comes as key regional powers meet in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue.

China’s growing role in the Pacific through funding infrastructure and boosting defence links was a hot topic in Singapore, with Beijing choosing to send its highest-profile defence delegation ever to participate in the forum, led by the defence minister, Wei Fenghe.

Having been greeted at the Honiara airport by the Solomons prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, on Sunday, Morrison and wife Jenny attended a barbecue at the Australian high commissioner’s residence.

“In the Pacific, stepping up is all about showing up,” Morrison said. “That’s why I am pleased that my first official visit after the election is to our own neighbourhood, where we can always make the most difference.”

Scott Morrison tends to the barbecue at the home of the Australian high commissioner to the Solomon Islands on Sunday.
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Scott Morrison tends to the barbecue at the home of the Australian high commissioner to the Solomon Islands on Sunday. Photograph: Darren England/AAP
Morrison was set to announce a $250m grants program for the Solomon Islands and an easier path for islanders to get work in Australia.

As well as holding a formal meeting with Sogavare on Monday, Morrison will unveil a bilateral infrastructure program worth up to $250m in grant financing over 10 years.

The program will support key national and economic infrastructure and will complement the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific.

It is understood the program will allow the Solomons government to quickly finance smaller, urgently required infrastructure that it would be unwilling to borrow in order to fund.

Australia will also support the building of a new complex to hold the prime minister’s office and the foreign affairs and trade ministries in Honiara.

As well, $2.7m will be provided over three years to help islanders considering work opportunities in Australia cover their upfront costs such as passports.

A sports funding package will boost the participation of women and girls in rugby and support elite-level athletes prepare for international events.

Climate change is expected to feature in talks with Solomons officials.

Morrison’s trip will also acknowledge the long cooperation between the nations during the regional assistance mission to Solomon Islands (Ramsi), which formally ended in 2017.

On his arrival Morrison said the Solomon Islands was “one of the closest members of our Pacific family”.

“After serious civil unrest, Australia and other regional friends helped re-establish law and order through the Ramsi operation that has seen their country restore their democracy and get their debt under control.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s defence minister, Linda Reynolds, told the Shangri-La Dialogue the Indo-Pacific region was becoming more prosperous “but it is also becoming more complex and contested”.

She said competition between nations in the region was not something to be feared but required everyone to play by internationally established rules and find “common principles that unite us”.

“We are in the midst of an effort to take our relationship with Pacific neighbours to a new level,” she said. “Australia wants to do our bit to ensure the Pacific region is resilient and it is stable.

“Our efforts now go well beyond what Australia has done in the past. We have a package of initiatives that are far-reaching in scope and also in ambition – security, economic, diplomatic, development and people-to-people initiatives that build on long and historic relationships and friendships.”

Morrison next moves on to the UK to represent Australia at the 75th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Portsmouth and catch up with world leaders, including outgoing UK prime minister Theresa May, US president Donald Trump, French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.