Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his government’s approach to China’s relationship with the Solomon Islands, after the opposition lashed it as the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” since World War II.
On the campaign trail in South Australia on Wednesday, Mr Morrison was quizzed about the decision to send a junior minister, Zed Seselja to the Solomons last week, while Foreign Minister Marise Payne reportedly stayed behind to host a Liberal Party function in Sydney.
Senator Seselja, the Pacific Minister, was dispatched to ask Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare not to sign a security pact with China. But his mission failed, with Beijing confirming on Tuesday night that a deal had been signed.
“I’m very conscious of how visits are perceived within the Pacific. This was the right calibrated way to address this issue with the Prime Minister. I have had discussions with the Prime Minister personally about these issues,” Mr Morrison said.
He did not explicitly address Senator Payne’s reported reasons for remaining in Australia.
“The judgment was made not to engage at a foreign minister level … to ensure that Australia’s views were communicated very clearly and very respectfully,” he said.
“One of the things you got to be very, very cognisant of is there is a long history of, frankly, countries like Australia and even New Zealand and others coming around and treating Pacific islands like they should be doing what the big countries should tell them to do.”
Mr Morrison accused Labor of being “very passive” on the risks of China’s growing influence in the Pacific – and of criticising him personally.
“They have been very critical of the government. They have been very critical of me personally in the strong stand that I have taken in relation to China’s influence, not just in Australia, but across the Pacific,” he said.
Mr Morrison said he had been proactive in the region, particularly through the Pacific Step-up program.
“I have been working closely with all of those political leaders [in the Pacific] because as a family you deal with the security threats that arise from this secret agreement with China.”
Mr Morrison said he was often asked why Australia was so “forward-leaning” when it came to China.
“If not us, then who? Who has the most to lose in our region, if Australia were not to stand up?” he said.
“We’ve always stood up to China because it’s in our interests. Now, we would like to have a very positive relationship but we’re not going to have a submissive relationship with China. And I don’t think it’s in the interests of Pacific nations.”
Earlier, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong accused the Coalition of the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in almost 80 years in a scathing attack on the Solomons deal. The Chinese security agreement with a nation 1600 kilometres from Cairns had made the region less secure under Mr Morrison’s watch, she said.
Campaigning in Queensland, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese backed up that criticism.
“Australia has been the security partner of choice for the Pacific for a long period of time. For the entire post-World War II period. That’s broken down. We need to rebuild it,” he said.
“This is a massive foreign policy failure on the Prime Minister’s watch. A massive foreign policy failure. One in which they were warned about, one in which even during the weeks leading up to the government finally sending Zed Seselja, a junior person, to the Solomons, we were saying ‘What are you doing to engage here?’.
“This isn’t something that has just arisen. This is something that has been in the planning for a period of time and quite clearly the relationships have broken down.”
Mr Morrison said the Solomon Islands government had stated it would not allow any Chinese naval bases.
“They are not. That there is no basis to make that assertion,” he said.
But the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Malcolm Davis said China would likely move fast to increase its presence in the region and establish a base by stealth.
“The Chinese are a powerful player and once they get a presence, an influence, in a country it’s virtually impossible to get them out,” he told the Nine Network.
“What you will see over the next year to two years is China increasing the pressure on the Sogavare government to establish what might look innocently at first as a police presence.
“Suddenly you find additional elements coming in and you end up with a military base by stealth.”
Dr David said China would move swiftly to create a foothold in the region, with the principle objective of being able to cut off Australia from a key sea-land communication with the US.
On Wednesday, Mr Sogavare told his country’s parliament the agreement, centred around domestic security, was guided by the country’s national interest.
“Let me assure the people that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” he said.
“We have full understanding of the fragility of peace and our duty as a state to protect all people, their property and critical national infrastructure of the country.”
Meanwhile, Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese will go head to head in the first leaders’ debate of the election campaign in Queensland later on Wednesday.
They will face questions from a group of 100 undecided voters in a debate to be broadcast on Sky News Australia. It begins at 7pm.