Climate change clouds Australia's Pacific charm offensive

Wellington (AFP) –


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Pacific charm offensive went off course on Friday when he was forced to defend Fiji's accusations of inaction over climate change.

As Morrison pushed Canberra's message of a new Pacific focus with increased security and enhanced trade opportunities, he was called out by Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who turned the spotlight onto climate change.

Bainimarama said if Australia shifted away from its coal and mining industries it would help the survival of Pacific island countries threatened by rising sea levels.

"From where we are sitting, we cannot imagine how the interests of any single industry can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples and vulnerable people in the world over," Bainimarama said in a speech late Thursday.

"Rising seas threaten whole communities, forcing them to endure the trauma of relocating from land they've endured for generations.

"Fijian farmers are watching their crops perish in soil that has been spoiled by the heightened salinity that is associated with sea level rise."

Morrison, wrapping up a three-day visit to Fiji and Vanuatu, told reporters on Friday that Australia had commitments on emissions reductions in a "comprehensive response" to climate change, but he gave no specifics on clean energy plans.

"Well, we are already pursuing those policies in a way that I believe is consistent with what (Bainimarama) is expecting of Australia," the prime minister said.

"They were discussions we had yesterday, and we have been having very positive discussions about our future investments in this area."

Morrison stressed the importance of the Pacific to Australia at a time China is increasing its presence in the region.

He avoided any mention of China, but in a keynote speech in Suva he spoke of strengthening "defence and security co-operation" in the region.

He also reaffirmed Canberra's commitment to extending trade opportunities in the Pacific, where Australia is often viewed as an unwelcome big brother.

Australia has in the past been accused of paying little regard to the region, while China maintains it is promoting "peace, security and prosperity" and fostering "wide-ranging friendly and co-operative ties".

On the first visit by an Australian leader to Vanuatu and Fiji, Morrison said he was turning his nation's attention to the Pacific where it "should always have been".

He also reiterated plans to establish five new diplomatic missions in the region.