By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama accused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of insulting leaders of Pacific island nations during a regional summit earlier this week, and said Chinese officials were far more tactful and better mannered.
The Fijian prime minister's comments come after the Pacific Islands Forum failed to agree on tough new climate change commitments at the insistence of the pro-coal Australian government, upsetting leaders of island nations at risk from rising sea levels.
Bainimarama said Morrison tried to force his country's policies onto the other nations, and insulted them by saying how much money Australia has given to the region.
"The prime minister was very insulting, very condescending, not good for the relationship," Bainimarama told Guardian Australia late Friday, a day after the summit of 18 Pacific nations in Tuvalu.
Australia and the United Staves have historically enjoyed virtually unchecked influence in the Pacific, but their sway in the region has been challenged in recent years by China.
Bainimarama said there was "no competition" between Australia and China, but when asked whether some Pacific leaders might now seek better ties with Beijing, he said, "nothing can be worse".
"The Chinese don't insult us," Bainimarama said. "They don't go down and tell the world that we've given this much money to the Pacific islands. They don't do that. They're good people, definitely better than Morrison."
The Fijian premier also called comments by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, published on Friday by the Guardian, very insulting. McCormack had said that Pacific island nations affected by climate changes will continue to survive because "many of their workers come here to pick our fruit".
Opposition Labor Party climate change spokesman Mark Butler said that Morrison has damaged the long-standing relationship with Pacific countries and McCormack's comment "just adds insult to injury".
Morrison's office would not comment on Bainimarama's accusations, but earlier on Saturday Morrison said that Australia is committed to the region.
"We're there for the difficult conversations, we're there for every type of conversation with our Pacific family, just like any family that comes around the table," he told reporters after addressing a South Australian Liberals conference.
"We will always be there and regardless of whatever issues we have to work through at the time."
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)