China, Australia donate buildings, airstrips in Pacific influence race

SYDNEY (Reuters) - China has donated a presidential building complex in Vanuatu while Australia and New Zealand inaugurated a A$55 million airfield in neighbouring Solomon Islands, amid competition for influence in the Pacific Islands region.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters was in Solomon Islands on Tuesday to hand over the A$55 million ($36.55 million) airfield in Western Province funded by New Zealand and Australia.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele, also at the ceremony, is expected to travel soon to China, after visiting Australia last week on his first overseas visit in the role.

Manele told media after returning to Solomon Islands on Saturday that Solomon Islands had asked Australia to fund the recruitment of local police over the next decade, so the nation could "look after ourselves" for domestic security.

Solomon Islands has security ties with China and Australia, although the new government elected in April is reviewing its security arrangements, Manele said.

Hu Chunhua, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CCPPCC), took part in a ceremony in Vanuatu on Monday to hand over a presidential office, and finance and foreign ministry buildings built by China in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila on Monday.

A boat donated by Australia to Vanuatu's police force, to boost maritime surveillance arrived in Port Vila this week, Australia's High Commission said in a statement.

China is the largest external creditor to Vanuatu after a decade of infrastructure building, while Australia is its biggest aid donor.

Hu also visited the biggest Pacific Island nation, Papua New Guinea, which has defence ties with the United States, last week.

"China is committed to developing friendly cooperation with Pacific Island countries, including Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands," China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

($1 = 1.5049 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney, Lucy Craymer in Auckland and Sarah Wu in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)