A former Pacific leader has declared China the "lesser of two evils" compared to Australia, as some small island nations turn to Beijing over Canberra for support in combating climate change.
Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, has taken aim at Australia's efforts after the issue flared up at the Pacific Islands Forum last week.
"It's really about the lesser of two evils, I guess, and at the moment Australia is coming up as the worst of the two evils," Mr Tong told ABC Radio National on Monday.
"It's got to be a better understanding, there's got to be a more respectful way of understanding each other. It cannot be dictated by the coal industry in the background."
Australia's seasonal workers program is now on the line, with Pacific leaders angered by deputy prime minister Michael McCormack's comments that the region's people would survive by picking Australian fruit.
"If that is the view of the government I will have no option but to pull back the Tuvaluans," the country's leader Enele Sopoaga told Radio NZ.
He is considering urging the leaders of Kiribati, Samoa and Tonga to do the same.
Acting Labor leader Richard Marles has called on Mr McCormack to apologise for the "ignorant, silly" comments, saying some Pacific leaders had told him how upset they were.
Mr Tong says Australia should face sanctions or be suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum to send a strong message that the region won't roll over on climate action.
"What is the point of the relationship? Any relationship must be mutually beneficial. It cannot be for the benefit of just one."
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama accused Scott Morrison of being "very insulting and condescending" at the forum in Tuvalu.
But Alex Hawke, the minister for the Pacific, argues the prime minister was both "understood and respected" by the region's leaders.
Mr Hawke said Labor could never have stood up to the "ridiculous demands" from Pacific leaders to immediately end all coal power and mining.
Many of the forum members wanted to single out coal-fired power for its impact on climate.
But the language was rejected in the final document, after Australia took a tough approach to negotiations.
Small island states also called for an immediate global ban on new coal-fired power plants and mines.
Although Mr Morrison promised $500 million to the region ahead of the forum, Mr Sopoaga said it wasn't an excuse to not reduce emissions.
Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said at the weekend her party, like the coalition, wouldn't have supported a ban on new coal mines as some small nations had wanted.
But she accused the coalition of failing on other scores, including not having realistic policies for reducing emissions.
Australian Associated Press