‘Give me a hug’: PM’s Solomons breakthrough at Pacific leaders’ meeting

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has met Solomon Islands leader Manasseh Sogavare at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji

Despite the recent tensions between the two nations, Wednesday afternoon’s meeting was upbeat, with Mr Albanese declaring the relationship with the Solomons “very important” to Australia.

“I think that there is much more we can do to cooperate and to develop those relationships of trust and mutual understanding for our joint benefit. And as members of the region, we want to advance the interests of the Pacific,” he said.

Minutes earlier, Mr Sogavare had declared “give me a hug” as he greeted Mr Albanese.

The Solomon Islands-Australia relationship has been strained after Australia protested against Prime Minister Sogavare’s security tie-up with Beijing.

At the height of the spat, Mr Sogavare said relations with Australia had “soured”. Ahead of their meeting, Mr Albanese said in Suva on Wednesday he had called out the development as a “Pacific stuff-up”.

“We had not paid enough attention,” he said.

He said his meeting with Mr Sogavare would be cordial.

“We’ll put forward Australia’s own position including on that agreement … I’ll treat leaders with respect,” he said.

“I’ll be honest with them. I’ll develop a relationship of trust with them, and that means not necessarily agreeing with them the whole time but being able to have an open dialogue.”

Mr Albanese touched down in Suva for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit, just hours after the US announced new investment in the region and the opening of two Pacific embassies.

Upon landing, Mr Albanese attempted to draw a contrast to his predecessor Scott Morrison’s approach in the Pacific, pointedly saying Australian support “does not come with strings attached”.

“It comes because we understand that we have a responsibility as an advanced economy in the region to provide support to our Pacific island neighbours and indeed that is in Australia’s interest,” he said.

“It’s a new era, a new era of cooperation.”

Wearing the same Fijian-style shirt as Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Mr Albanese joked “can you tell us apart?”, and referred to Senator Wong as his “twin”.

“What I bring to this forum is positive energy,” he said.

“I’ve spoken about treating countries with respect. What that means is not just talking but listening.

“We have, as human beings, two ears and one mouth for a reason – because we should use the ears twice as much as we use our mouth. If you do that, you’ll learn from each other.”

Australian officials claim the Labor government’s climate policies have been seen as “refreshing” after the former Morrison government’s unwillingness to listen to Pacific concerns.

However, activists note Australia’s carbon emissions targets still fall short of Paris Agreement goals to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Until Wednesday, Senator Wong had represented Australia at meetings in Fiji, including a fisheries forum addressed by the US Vice President Kamala Harris earlier in the day.

Invitations to greater powers are rarely extended at PIF leaders’ summits, and the US presence was in contrast to the treatment offered to China, which has been shut out. However, China did send two officials – apparently without credentials – to listen to Ms Harris’ virtual address in which she pledged a major boost to support and engagement in the Pacific, including new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, other diplomatic postings, and an influx of US Peace Corps to the region.

“We recognise in recent years the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” she said.

“Today I am here to tell you directly we are going to change that.”

The Guardian is reporting the Chinese officials were escorted from the gathering by Fijian police, after one was recognised as an embassy official by a journalist.

Ms Harris also announced a renegotiated South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which will bring $US600 million ($890 million) worth of support to the region.

Mr Albanese said he supported Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s decision to invite Ms Harris, and agreed with her comments.

“It is a critique I believe that you may have heard myself and [Senator Wong] make,” he said.

Later on Wednesday, Mr Albanese was also to meet leaders from Fiji and Samoa.

Leaders will spend all of Thursday in a “retreat”, where they will talk about issues, including rubber-stamping a new regional long-term plan.

Four members won’t be there, including Kiribati, which withdrew from the forum with complaints of a lack of power-sharing with Micronesian nations.

However, Mr Albanese said his government would continue to reach out and he hoped Kitibati could be brought back on board.

Other member states to miss the summit include Nauru, absent due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Cook Islands, which has local elections within weeks, and Marshall Islands, due to legal issues.

– with AAP

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