While Australia remains the largest aid provider in the Pacific, China is injecting more and more funds into the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
An in-depth analysis of aid in the Pacific found that Chinese funding to the region continued to decline from its peak in 2016 to 2021.
But funds for new developments are earmarked for the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, the last two Pacific nations to change allegiance from Taiwan to China.
“In both countries, significant new funding from China has replaced existing support from Taiwan,” says the Lowy Institute report.
“China has not given up on using development aid to cement key relationships.”
Concerns were expressed about the actions of the governments of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
The former signed a security pact with China and threatened journalists critical of Beijing, while the latter threatened the rule of law, with the government suspending judges who ruled against it.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman and former government minister Simon Birmingham told AAP that specific areas of concern for AAP in the region include democratic principles such as freedom of the press.
“It is important to ensure that we work as closely as possible to ensure that Pacific countries that want to advance their democracies, as well as economic development, have the power to do so,” he said.
“Where undue restrictions are imposed on the media, or where there is a decline in electoral and democratic processes, obviously Australia should raise such concerns.”
Senator Birmingham said communication should be done with respect, recognizing the right of sovereign nations to choose their own path.
But he said Australia should “provide all the support nations will welcome for free, fair and safe elections in the region.”
Australia recently helped support elections in Papua New Guinea and is seeking a security deal that will see defense personnel from both countries work closely together.
But while the Australian Defense Force and federal police backed the poll with the deployment of more than 130 staff, the elections were still plagued by violence and electoral gimmicks.
Australia argues that while responding to the needs identified by PNG, any election-related issues must be addressed through local laws and mechanisms.
“We look forward to continuing to strengthen this relationship as we plan our future activities,” said Defense Minister Richard Marles.