London: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says security is one of the reasons why Britain will open three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific Islands.
The development follows Australia’s call for the UK to direct more of its aid to the Pacific, to help hedge against China’s spending-spree in the region.
“As a Commonwealth family of nations, it is in our shared interest to boost prosperity, tackle security issues and clear up the environment.
“These new diplomatic posts are in regions which provide huge potential and opportunity post-Brexit for British businesses and will help us to deepen our relationships across the Commonwealth.
Last week, Fairfax Media revealed that Beijing had sounded out Vanuatu about building a military base there, which would put Chinese warships on Australia’s doorstep.
Turnbull met Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai in London on Wednesday and told reporters a short time later: “The Prime Minister of Vanuatu has made it very clear, quite unequivocally, the media reports about Chinese interest in establishing a military base in Vanuatu have no basis in fact so he has said those reports are absolutely untrue, that’s what he said.”
On Thursday, Turnbull said the Australian government would fund an undersea fibre-optic cable connecting Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to the internet, cutting out the Chinese company Huawei. The funding will come from Australia’s aid budget.
Australia fears that China could try and use the infrastructure to tap into Australia’s telecommunications networks.
Earlier this week, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, called for Britain to send more aid to the Pacific after Brexit. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has presided over the largest ever cuts to the aid budget, said the British would be resetting its relationships with the rest of the world as it leaves the European Union.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, has calculated that China spent $1.7 billion on 218 projects in the region between 2006 and 2016. China has also showered the tiny states with cheap loans to build infrastructure, many of which Australia fears the nations cannot afford to ever repay, leaving them indebted to Beijing.
Mr Pryke said Britain’s aid to the Pacific goes via the EU and this would be delivered directly after Brexit. He said Britain’s reengagement would be welcomed by the Pacific and Australia.
“Australia is often seen as the big kid on the block in the Pacific, and our engagement can sometimes be heavy handed. Having a larger UK presence in the region could help mediate that, and maybe also bring some fresh thinking to some of the tougher development challenges that these small island states are facing.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday. A spokesperson for Number 10 said: “They agreed that the UK and China would continue to work together to identify how best we can cooperate on the Belt and Road initiative across the region and ensure it meets international standards”.
May also raised the South China Sea, according to the spokesperson.
“The Prime Minister also noted the need to recognise and respect the international law of the sea, in the context of adherence to the wider rules-based international system.”