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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands would be a “red line” for his government, while fellow US-ally Japan became the latest to dispatch an envoy to the country over the issue. 

Morrison is attempting to deflect criticism he did not move quickly enough to avoid a security agreement between Honiara and Beijing. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday in Darwin, Morrison said his determination to avoid a naval base in the Solomon Islands was shared not just by the US, but by the Pacific nation’s prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.

Morrison said Sogavare had assured him personally there would be no military base in the Solomons. “This is a shared concern, not just Australia. This is Australia with regional governments,” he said.

On Friday, a delegation led by President Joe Biden’s East Asia tsar Kurt Campbell visited the country to have a “substantial discussion” with Sogavare about the pact. The prime minister on Monday said in doing so, Washington had “revitalised relations” with the Solomon Islands and he welcomed, once again, a US decision to re-establish its embassy. 

“Contrary to misinformation promoted by antigovernment critics, the Solomon Islands-China Security Co-operation is not about China establishing a military base in Solomon Islands, but is about supporting the state to address its internal hard and soft security threats,” Sogavare said in a statement.

Election issue

When asked by journalists what he would do in the event of the announcement of a Chinese military base in the Solomons, Morrison didn’t say.

Australia’s Liberal-National coalition is working to contain the political fallout from the announcement in the past week that the Solomon Islands had signed a security agreement with China, the details of which have not been made public. A draft of the agreement leaked in late March 2022 would allow Chinese naval vessels a safe harbour just 2,000km from Australia’s coastline.

The US and its allies have long been concerned about the possibility of China obtaining a military foothold in the Pacific, and the agreement is a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese government. Japan on Monday dispatched parliamentary vice minister Kentaro Uesugi for talks with officials in the Solomons. 

The Australian opposition Labor Party (ALP) described the pact as the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War 2”. 

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Monday morning, Labor’s shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor said he would request a briefing from the government on what it would do if the “red line” was crossed by China.

“The fact that we have to turn to using that type of language is too little, too late. We should have been doing more,” he said.

Morrison’s government is campaigning for a fourth term in power at a national election due to be held on May 21 2022. Despite Australia’s strong economy and record low unemployment, Morrison’s center-right government is trailing Labor in opinion polling.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
Bloomberg


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