The prime minister of Fiji has praised Australia’s new foreign minister and taken a swipe at Scott Morrison, while Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the previous government dropped the ball in its Paific dealings.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he had a “wonderful meeting” with Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Saturday after she travelled to the country in her first solo overseas visit since being sworn in.
“Fiji is not anyone’s backyard – we are a part of a Pacific family,” Mr Bainimarama later wrote on Twitter.
“And our greatest concern isn’t geopolitics – it’s climate change.”
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He said the meeting would strengthen Fiji and Australia’s Vuvale Partnership, using a Fijian word meaning “friendship”.
The post included a photo of Mr Bainimarama and Senator Wong smiling and shaking hands.
Mr Bainimarama appeared to be taking a thinly-veiled swipe at former prime minister Morrison, who in 2019 referred to the Pacific as Australia’s “backyard”.
Mr Albanese said the previous government had “dropped the ball” in its relationship with the Pacific and dismissed internal advice to increase aid to the region.
“The truth is the former government had a submission from Foreign Affairs and Trade, backed by the foreign minister at the time, Marise Payne, for increased aid in the Pacific,” the prime minister told media on Saturday.
“And they ignored it and they dropped the ball when it came to that engagement.
“We won’t drop the ball.
“We are engaged in our very first week.”
“It’s unfortunate that in recent times, there’s been not a step up so much as a stuff up in terms of the relations with our Pacific island neighbours,” Mr Albanese added.
“My government intends to engage in a co-operative and respectful way.”
Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum also thanked Senator Wong for choosing the Pacific country for her first individual trip after being sworn in.
“As part of great discussion, we’ve called the climate crisis by its name and committed to tackle it together,” he said Friday.
Next week Fiji officials including the prime minister will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who has expressed hope Beijing’s ties with the Solomon Islands will form a regional model.
Meanwhile, Senator Wong used her trip to pledge Australia’s support in the region.
Mr Albanese previously said Australia could differentiate its offering to the Pacific by respecting the region’s sovereignty.
China is seeking a sweeping 10-nation deal on security and trade that has unsettled the United States and its Pacific allies, including Australia.
Mr Wang is expected to push for the deal in a meeting he will host on Monday in Fiji.
However Senator Wong says there are regional consequences to a security pact between Solomon Islands and China after the Chinese minister said interference in the deal would fail.