The government's Pacific aid announcement is being seen as a counter to China's increasing soft-power push in the region.
Australia will set up a $2b fund to support infrastructure projects in the Pacific region, the Morrison government has announced, which will offer both grants and “long-term” loans.
The fund is the centrepiece of the government’s so-called ‘step up’ in the region – interpreted by analysts as a direct response to China’s growing use of aid spending to increase its diplomatic sway.
“Australia cannot take its influence in the Southwest Pacific for granted. And sadly, I think, too often we have,” Mr Morrison told the crowd at a barracks in Townsville on Thursday.
The government will also build new diplomatic outposts in five Pacific locations – Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.
“This is our patch. This is our part of the world. This is where we have special responsibilities. Always have, always will. We have their back and they have ours.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten welcomed more money for infrastructure in the region, but accused the government of copying a similar proposal from Labor some months ago.
“I'll just say to the prime minister, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Mr Shorten said.
Announcement comes during China visit
Graeme Smith, an expert on the Pacific at the Australian National University, told SBS News it was “not a coincidence” the announcement was timed to align with foreign minister Marise Payne’s visit to China.
“I think we feel like we are being outplayed in the infrastructure sector in the Pacific,” he said.
“And, in particular, Australian companies are being squeezed out of the Pacific by their Chinese competitors.”
Also among the announcements is a $1 billion funding boost for Efic, a government financing body that supports Australian exporters accessing overseas markets.
There will also be a push to help “commercial media operators” in Australia get their news, sport and drama programmes broadcast in the Pacific.
The emphasis on commercial operators like Channel Seven, Nine and Ten drew criticism on social media from some users, who noted the Abbott government’s decision to scrap a popular ABC service, the Australia Network, which used to broadcast in the Pacific.
“How utterly idiotic,” Ben Oquist, director of the progressive think tank The Australia Institute, wrote on Twitter.
“Australia has a national broadcaster with the most extensive international reach of any domestic network. Millions were spent to leverage that into the region. Then Abbott axed it. Now the govt will give taxpayer dollars to private sector.”
Mr Smith said he did not understand why it was better for “kids to be watching My Kitchen Rules rather than Playschool”.