Labor has accused the federal Coalition of the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in almost 80 years in a scathing attack after the governments of Solomon Islands and China signed a new security pact.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the Chinese security agreement with the island nation 1600 kilometres from Cairns had made the region less secure.
“On Scott Morrison’s watch, our region has become less secure and the risks that Australia faces have become much greater,” Senator Wong told the ABC.
Despite repeated assertions from the Solomon Islands that Australia remained its security partner of choice, Senator Wong said the pact with China had demonstrated Canberra was no longer the go-to for Honiara.
“What this deal signifies is that Australia is no longer for the Solomon Islands a nation to whom they turn to meet their challenges in every instance,” she said.
Senator Wong also accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “going missing” as the issue emerged.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja went to Honiara last week to ask Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare not to sign the agreement. But neither Mr Morrison nor Foreign Minister Marise Payne have visited.
“He’s the leader offer of the country. This is our region, it goes directly to Australia’s national security and he should have taken responsibility,” she said.
“The United States is sending their top Indo-Pacific national security adviser, Kurt Campbell. We send the junior minister in the last minute in a region which is critical to our security.
“Yet again Mr Morrison has gone missing and might talk a tough game, but what we are seeing on his watch is the worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II.”
But deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud said Mr Morrison had been in “constant contact” with Mr Sogavare.
“We’re in caretaker mode [ahead of the federal election] and when you’re in caretaker mode there is an agreement between the government and the opposition about a joint approach to this,” he said.
“The opposition, the Labor Party, agreed that the best form of attack that we put forward was that Zed Seselja should go there as the Pacific Minister, as one who has constant that has been on the ground on the
Solomon Islands and with our other Pacific nations in dealing with this matter would have better cut-through.”
Senator Payne also said criticism of the government didn’t recognise the “the sovereign decisions that governments make for themselves”.
“It also doesn’t recognise the strength and the engagement that Australia has made through the Pacific step up,” Senator Payne told the ABC.
“We are looking at very serious geostrategic challenges in our region.”
Senator Payne expressed her deep disappointment in the signing of the security agreement when it was made public by the Chinese on Tuesday night.
Senator Payne said Australia remained concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the agreement.
“This has not been agreed in an open and transparent way – not being consulted, for example, across the region,” she said.
“Security issues have been dealt with in a Pacific-wide manner, that’s the traditional approach for these issues, and that’s why some Pacific partners have also raised concerns.”
Senator Payne said the Pacific family remained the best suited to deal with Pacific problems and noted Australia remained the Solomon Islands’ largest development partner.