Politics

China could have Solomon Islands military base within four weeks

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“This deal between China and the Solomons was foreshadowed last August – the government was warned,” Albanese said.

“And yet only in recent days did the government bother to send a junior person across to the Solomons.”

Former foreign affairs minister and Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop called the agreement “deeply disturbing” and said it could change the dynamic of the region by leading to Chinese military bases in the islands.

“I believe our foreign minister should be on the next plane to the Solomon Islands to talk with the government to see what’s actually been agreed,” she told the Ten Network.

Albanese also confirmed that if elected as prime minister he would personally go to Solomon Islands to discuss the issue directly with Sogavare.

In a key point of dispute, Solomon Islands Opposition Leader Matthew Wale has said he told Australian diplomats about the security talks with China last August but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement late on Wednesday disputing the date of the meeting and saying he did not raise the China deal.

Payne responded to the March 24 leak with a statement the next day expressing concern but the government confirmed on Wednesday she was at a dinner with business figures when Seselja was sent to Honiara.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta held talks in Fiji on March 28. By April 9, the US had decided to send its National Security Council Co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, to the Solomons to discuss the deal.

Payne was also busy during this period on sanctions against Russia, discussions with Ukraine and a meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels on April 7 that included talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She was engaged in campaign activity after Morrison called the election on April 10.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said Chinese ships and aircraft were likely to arrive in the Solomons within weeks because the deal would “absolutely” lead to a military base.

“We can expect China to seek to consolidate this development very quickly by actually moving assets there, so we should expect cargo planes to arrive and ships to arrive and they’ll be unloading all manner of stuff,” he said.

“Their model is what they’ve done in the South China Sea, which is to move quickly and decisively before people are able to gather their thoughts and resist.

“So I would imagine we would see something happen before we get to our election.”

Jennings rejected the key Labor claim that the deal could have been prevented or foreseen in recent weeks when Australia’s challenges in the Pacific were due to bipartisan neglect over decades.

“It’s frankly absurd that Labor is seeking to blame Chinese bad behaviour on the federal government,” he said.

“Could we have done more after the leak of the document? Yes, absolutely, we should have engaged in more sustained senior diplomatic effort approach the Solomons government and Sogovare in particular.”

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Australian National University emeritus professor of strategic studies Hugh White said it was “fanciful” to suggest the outcome would have been different if a different person had been sent to the Solomons because China was certain to have a greater influence over time.

“If there’s a war it is significant that China would have a base as close to us as the Solomons but that is a challenge for our defence planners because they would have to make sure we have the capacity to neutralise such a base,” White said.

“That can be done with the right kind of investments in missiles and that’s the challenge, rather than to spend too much money on tanks, for example.

“Could we have prevented it? I don’t think we can prevent China becoming substantially more influential in the south-west Pacific because China will simply become too big and too rich and too important for these countries to ignore.”

The bigger challenge, White said, was to develop a stronger engagement with the Pacific that was not based on aid funding and was not driven by fear of Australian security.



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