Pacific Islands nations, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are considering forming defence forces and have discussed the matter with Australia, Defence Minister Richard Marles said on Wednesday.
Security partnerships in the region, where currently only five out of 18 members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) bloc have a military, have come into focus after China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands last year.
The U.S. responded by signing a defence cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea in May.
China and Solomon Islands have said their security pact provides for domestic security and policing, rejecting concerns from other PIF members about the risk of militarisation of the region.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s ambition to create a defence force was first mentioned publicly in a press conference on Monday after he returned from a week-long visit to China.
“It is clearly a decision for Solomon Islands … Australia is very keen to play its part in partnering with Solomon Islands in the development of their defense force,” Marles said in an ABC Television interview on Wednesday.
“Vanuatu is also thinking about moving down this path as well,” he added.
Vanuatu has signed but not ratified a security treaty with Australia and will host a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron next week.
“We seek to be the natural partner of choice for the Solomon Islands and all the countries of the Pacific, after a decade where this country took its eye off the ball,” Marles added.
Sogavare told reporters on Monday if there were “hiccups” with Australia providing security assistance under a 2017 treaty, China could send its police within nine hours.
The three Pacific Island countries with militaries – Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga – will take part in Australia’s largest defence exercise with the United States, Talisman Sabre, beginning on Saturday.
Thirty thousand personnel from 13 nations, including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, and European countries France, Britain and Germany, will also take part.
The U.S. is Australia’s major security alliance partner.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin travel to Queensland state next week for annual ministerial consultations. “What you are going to see over the next few years is a growth in the way in which Australia and the U.S. operate together,” Marles said.