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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister said on Monday his nation will boost spending on infrastructure in the Solomon Islands, but noted the increased aid commitment was not linked to the South Pacific nation's diplomatic allegiance to Taiwan.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison highlighted the importance he places on Australia's bilateral relationship with the impoverished near-neighbor by making the Solomons the destination of his first international trip since he was reelected at a May 18 election.
Morrison announced after meeting his Solomons counterpart Manasseh Sogavare in the capital, Honiara, that Australia would provide 250 million Australian dollars ($174 million) in aid over the next decade for infrastructure spending.
The Solomons' diplomatic recognition of Taiwan was an issue in the country's April elections that brought Sogavare to power.
His predecessor, Prime Minister Rick Hou, had promised to consider switching recognition to China, the Solomons' biggest export market, if we were reelected. The U.S. government has urged Pacific nations not to bow to Chinese pressure by withdrawing recognition of Taiwan.
Morrison said Australia would not advise the Solomons government on whether they should maintain their country's diplomatic alliance with the self-governing democratic island.
"They are an independent, sovereign country who will make decisions in their national interests," Morrison told reporters.
"It's not our place to provide advice or guidance on those decisions," he added.
Days after Morrison's conservative government's surprise election victory, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia W. Patrick Murphy visited Australia and urged Pacific island nations not to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Murphy warned that Chinese pressure to change Taiwan's international standing threatened to increase the possibility of conflict.
He said diplomatic decisions should not be influenced by China. He also said the Unites States had "strong diplomatic relations" with the Solomons and had congratulated the new prime minister on his victory.
Six Pacific island nations including the Solomons give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, accounting for a third of the island's diplomatic allies around the world. But they are under intensifying pressure from Beijing to switch allegiances as China builds influence in the region.
China is Australia's most important trading partner and the United States is Australia's most important security ally.
Morrison's Solomons trip came as three Chinese warships arrived in Sydney Harbor on a four-day visit.
The prime minister said the Chinese ships had come to Sydney on their way home from the Middle East on a reciprocal visit after Australian warships had traveled to China.
He rejected any suggestion of a link between the timing of the Sydney visit and the 30th anniversary on Tuesday of Chinese authorities' brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Solomons already gets the third largest share of Australian aid money after Indonesia then Papua New Guinea, Australia's two nearest neighbors. Morrison's visit to the Solomons is the first by an Australian prime minister since 2008.
The two prime ministers said in a joint statement that the new infrastructure aid would complement the AU$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific which was announced in November to will provide grants and long-term loans for investments in telecommunications, energy, transport and water infrastructure.
Australia's new emphasis on infrastructure investment comes as its island neighbors increasing looking to China for aid through Beijing's "Belt and Road" infrastructure program.
The new U.S. ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr. said in March that he was concerned about the way China lends money to developing Pacific nations in what he described as "payday loan diplomacy."
He told reporters in Canberra that it was up to U.S. allies and Western liberal democracies to educate people about the dangers of such loans.
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