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China, Australia raise climate change, security at Pacific leaders summit

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia and China pledged more support for the Pacific Islands in their fight against climate change, as the leaders of four nations debate declaring the strategic region "neutral" as China and the United States jostle for influence.

Climate change, security and trade dominated the opening day of a summit meeting of the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia's ruling FLNKS party.

U.S. ally Australia and China were invited to speak at the summit, and the leaders are expected to issue a statement after a retreat on Thursday.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group summit is the first to be held in five years, and comes as "the great powers of China and the U.S. compete for Pacific influence", Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told the meeting on Wednesday.

The leaders are considering a proposal to declare a "region of peace and neutrality" and a new security framework, which officials have previously indicated could provide a vehicle for China to boost its security ties.

The wider Pacific Islands Forum bloc of 18 nations last year rejected a bid by China to sign a 10-nation security and trade deal.

Papua New Guinea has a defence agreement with the United States, while Solomon Islands last year signed a security pact with China. Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau has faced a political backlash after signing a security deal with Australia, the region's biggest aid donor.

Australia wanted a closer partnership with the MSG including "increased engagement on climate change, security, economic growth, development, culture and sport", a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade quoted Australia's Special Envoy for the Pacific Ewen McDonald as saying.

China's ambassador to Vanuatu, Li Minggang, told the meeting the MSG had "played an important role in promoting regional peace and stability".

He said China also wanted to deepen cooperation in the fields of economy, trade, tourism, and climate change, according to a statement on the Chinese embassy website.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group was formed four decades ago to push for independence for indigenous Melanesian groups, and its new headquarters in Vanuatu was funded by China.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Miral Fahmy)