CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister sidestepped a diplomatic dispute over a suspected extremist's nationality and brushed off criticism that he is burdening Pacific neighbors with unsustainable debt as he began a two-day visit on Thursday to Fiji.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is visiting Fiji and Vanuatu this week as both Australia and China strive to increase their influence among South Pacific island nations.
Morrison said his Fijian counterpart, Frank Bainimarama, had not raised with him the status of Neil Prakash, an Australian-born alleged extremist whom Australia stripped of citizenship on the basis that he was a Fijian dual national through his Fijian-born father. Fiji denies that 27-year-old Prakash, who is currently being held in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges, is Fijian.
"He did not raise it with me because this matter had already been dealt with," Morrison told reporters in the Fijian capital, Suva.
"We're here about a much bigger partnership than that. We work through those issues and move forward and I think that's a tremendous thing," he added.
It was not immediately clear whether the two nations had reached agreement on Prakash's citizenship. Bainimarama did not take reporters' questions during media events with Morrison. Australia's international obligations prevent it from rendering its citizens stateless, so only dual nationals can lose their Australian citizenship.
Fiji stands to benefit from a 2 billion Australian dollar ($1.4 billion) Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific announced by Morrison in November to provide grants and long-term loans for investments in telecommunications, energy, transport and water infrastructure.
China protested a year ago when then Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said Chinese aid programs in poor Pacific island countries were creating "white elephants" that threatened economic stability without delivering benefits.
On Thursday, Fierravanti-Wells — who remains a government senator but is no longer a minister — wrote an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asking, "why are we even contemplating saddling our neighbors with more debt?"
"We might argue that our debt is more transparent than Beijing's and therefore 'better debt,'" Fierravanti-Wells wrote.
"This is not only disingenuous, but it is not in the long-term interests of Pacific Island countries," she added.
Morrison noted that Australia's financing facility includes AU$500 million in grants that would not have to be repaid.
"I don't agree with the perspective that she's offered, and for this reason: I would agree with the perspective that has been shared with me not just by Pacific leaders across the region but our allies and partners well beyond our region," Morrison said.
Bainimarama said his discussions with Morrison focused on security and defense cooperation as well as border and maritime security.
"I am confident when I say that today's bilateral was not only a clear success, it truly marks a new chapter in the Fiji-Australian relationship," Bainimarama told reporters.