Efforts to dissuade the Solomon Islands over a proposed security agreement with China could hinge on fellow Melanesian nations Fiji and Papua New Guinea coming up to with face-saving off-ramp for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to water down the deal.
Pessimism is rising that the deal will not be dumped altogether following Sogavare’s staunch defence of the proposed agreement in the Solomon Islands’ Parliament on Tuesday and China’s sway over local politicians.
As Australia and other Pacific nations fight a rearguard action against the deal, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece has called Scott Morrison “paranoid” and politically naive for opposing the security agreement with the Solomon Islands and urged Australia to do more to help poorer countries in the region.
The China Daily published an editorial late on Monday saying Morrison was fanning “anti-China hysteria” by lobbying other Pacific countries to pressure the Solomons to drop the deal.
“Its blatant meddling in the issue only exposes Australia’s colonialist attitude toward the Pacific Island region and further consolidates the country’s widely criticised role as a ‘South Pacific bully’,” the editorial said.
“His paranoid response to China’s proposed deal with the Solomon Islands along with his refusal to meet China’s new ambassador to Australia – saying it would have been ‘a sign of weakness’ – only expose his arrogance and political naïveté.”
While China often criticises Australia, a more personal attack on a prime minister is less common. Tensions are expected to escalate in the lead-up to the Australian election, given China is a key topic at the polls.
Sogavare on Tuesday said the deal was close to being signed as he denied his country had “picked a side”. He said he felt “insulted” by claims the deal would pave the way for the establishment of a Chinese naval base.
However, security experts and the government fear that is a realistic outcome if the deal, which would also allow Chinese police and military to be stationed on the Solomons, goes ahead.
“Normal law enforcement and security co-operation between China and Solomon Islands, two independent countries, is consistent with international law and customary international practice,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said late on Monday when asked about suggestions China could build a naval base there.
Sources said Pacific Island leaders have felt blindsided by Sogavare’s secret negotiations with China, which they believe goes against the region’s traditional approach of consultation and collective security.
Morrison spoke to Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and Fiji’s leader, Frank Bainimarama, on Monday.
One possible pathway is for Fiji, as this year’s chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, to ask Sogavare to pause the agreement to allow regional leaders to talk about it privately.
“Pacific leaders are concerned about the implications of this agreement. I would expect there to be attempts to reach out to Sogavare from leaders in the region,” said Mihai Sora, a Lowy Institute research fellow and a former Australian diplomat to Honiara.
Sora acknowledged the strength of Sogavare’s commitment to an agreement, which made it difficult for him to dump it, but the pact could be narrowed in scope and made more clearly defined and transparent.
China’s latest broadside over strategic positioning in the region came as Beijing went on the attack over the treatment of Chinese students in Australia.
Beijing had lodged a complaint with Canberra about the deportation of two Chinese students after they arrived in Sydney because they reportedly did not disclose their military training, something that is compulsory in China for all university students.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman said there were many incidents where Australian border law enforcement officers in Sydney interrogated Chinese students, and examined their cellphones and personal belongings for “no reason”.
“Such acts have gravely undermined the legitimate and lawful rights and interests of Chinese students,” he said.
The Australian Border Force (ABF) said it would not comment on individual cases.
“The travelling public should be aware that the Australian Border Force can and does cancel visas at the border if a traveller has provided false information,” the ABF spokesman said.
Meanwhile, China has suspended imports from Australian meat exporter JBS Australia for one week after traces of coronaviruses were reportedly detected in a sample taken from the outer packaging of frozen lamb.
However, the move is unlikely to be politically motivated as China has suspended shipments from more than 100 exporters over the last two weeks alone, mainly seafood from India, Pakistan, Ecuador, and Vietnam.
Separately, China said it was stepping up aid to Pacific Island countries fighting COVID-19 with a new shipment of medical equipment delivered to Tarawa, Kiribati this week.
The China Daily said China delivered more than 20 tonnes of medical supplies to the Solomon Islands last month, while COVID-19 test kits for 240,000 people were expected to arrive in Samoa this weekend.