© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles speaks as he and his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi (not pictured) attend a joint news conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Japan June 15, 2022. Shuji Kajiyama / Pool via REUTERS
By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – South Pacific defense ministers will meet in Tonga on Tuesday, with Australia seeking a closer military relationship with three island nations that have defense forces to fend off aggression. promote China’s security in the region.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles will travel to Tonga on Monday ahead of this week’s South Pacific Defense Ministers’ Meeting, which is held annually to discuss security challenges in the region.
Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga – the only Pacific island nations with militaries – are members, as are New Zealand, France, Australia and Chile.
Last week, Marles said Australia was negotiating a defense treaty with Papua New Guinea so the two nations’ navies and militaries would come together more often, and Canberra also wanted to “grow our relationship.” ” with other islands in the Pacific Ocean.
In a statement on Monday, Marles said the region was facing more threats to shared security.
“The Pacific Family is stronger when we respond together, by increasing coordination, sharing information, and improving interoperability between nations and our defense forces,” he said. “.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing: “We hope that the military cooperation of the countries concerned will contribute to stability.” of regional peace and will not target third parties.”
The United States and its allies including Australia have been warned of China’s growing influence in the strategically important region after Beijing reached a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April and sought a broader trade and security pact with 10 countries in May.
Although the Solomon Islands has no military, a leaked draft of the agreement suggests it would allow additional Chinese naval vessels there.
China has been a significant donor of equipment to the militaries of Fiji and Papua New Guinea, while Tonga, with its large debts to Chinese banks, has received some Chinese military funding.
Marles will also travel to Fiji for defense talks and visit the Blackrock (NYSE:) military camp, which is funded by Australia as a regional disaster relief centre, his statement said.
In January, Tonga was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami that prompted Australia and New Zealand to coordinate a humanitarian response from defense forces including Japan, France and Britain. China also deployed naval vessels for humanitarian assistance.
Papua New Guinea said this month it would sign an agreement with the United States to put its military officers on US coast and naval vessels to patrol against illegal fishing, media reports local news.