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Australia Moves to Boost Regional Security

FILE - In this June 20, 2009 file photo, the Palau Capital building is seen in Melekeok, Palau.
FILE - In this June 20, 2009 file photo, the Palau Capital building is seen in Melekeok, Palau.

COVID, climate change and China will be the main subjects of discussion this week when a senior Australian delegation visits Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

Vanuatu is a group of islands three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to Australia. On Tuesday it signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with Canberra. It covers a broad range of areas including disaster relief, policing, border security and maritime safety.

In a written statement Tuesday, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, said the accord would “make a valuable contribution to the security of the Pacific family.”

Wong is traveling with senior members of Australia’s center-left government and members of the conservative opposition.

The bipartisan delegation will also mark 35 years of diplomatic relations with the Federated States of Micronesia and will visit an elementary school to show Australia’s support for the islands’ education sector.

In Palau, Wong and her colleagues will visit a solar project supported by Australia.

Both Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia are independent countries but have signed a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States, which gives Washington responsibility for the islands’ defense and the right to maintain military bases.

Palau is one of the few nations in the world to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country.

Its president, Surangel Whipps Jr., told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Tuesday that the region faces many serious issues, “from COVID, which hopefully is behind us, climate, which is constant and we can say conflict and rising inflation and China.”

Earlier this year, China signed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands. Beijing said the agreement will enhance “social order” in the Solomon’s archipelago, northeast of Australia. China failed to persuade other Pacific Island nations to sign a broader regional accord, but Australia and its allies believe China maintains its security and trade ambitions in the Pacific.

In response, Australia has intensified its diplomatic efforts in the region, promising more action on climate change, security and aid.

Bilateral relations between Australia and China have deteriorated over various geopolitical disputes. Allegations of Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic affairs and cyberespionage have been dismissed by Beijing as “anti-China hysteria.”