Federal Labor is accusing the government of the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in almost 80 years, after the governments of Solomon Islands and China signed a new security pact.
The controversial deal has been subject of significant debate in recent weeks, sparking fears it could allow China to establish a military presence in the South Pacific region.
Australia, New Zealand and the United States have all expressed concern about the precedent the situation could set for other small Pacific nations.
Last week, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja was sent to Solomon Islands in a last-ditch effort to convince the government in Honiara to walk away from the deal, a trip now shown to have been fruitless.
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong was scathing in her assessment of the way the Coalition had handled the matter.
“We have China now with a security agreement with a nation of the Pacific, a nation that’s just over 1,600 kilometres from Cairns.
“What this means is, on Scott Morrison’s watch, our region has become less secure, and the risks Australia faces have become much greater.”
Senator Wong said the Prime Minister had ignored warnings about the deal last year, and should have personally intervened to ensure it was never signed.
“Securing our region at this time is such an imperative for any government that this should have been something that Morrison dealt with — but he went missing,” Senator Wong said.
“And, instead of taking responsibility and dealing with this as a leader should, in the interests of the nation, he sends a junior woodchuck at the last minute.”
Australia’s spy chiefs were also sent to Honiara to ventilate Australia’s concerns about the pact.
“I think what this still signifies is that Australia is no longer for … Solomon Islands, the nation to whom they turn to meet their challenges in every instance,” Senator Wong said.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne rejected Senator Wong’s assessment that inaction by the Morrison government had fuelled the situation.
“I think that’s an unfair characterisation, and I don’t think it recognises the sovereign decisions that governments, of course, make for themselves,” she said.
“We are looking at very serious geo-strategic challenges in our region, and they are realities.”
Senator Payne insisted that Australia still played a significant role in the South Pacific.
However, she argued, the governments in Honiara and Beijing needed to provide more detail about exactly what the security deal would allow for.
“In relation to this agreement, we see a lack of transparency” she said.
“This has not been agreed in an open and transparent way, not been consulted, for example, across the region.”
Top U.S official Kurt Campbell is slated to visit Solomon Islands later this week, as the United States warned of the “concerning precedent” the security deal set.
Senator Payne said she was pleased the trip was going ahead, but avoided speculation about whether the deal could be undone.
“That’s a matter for the parties,” she said.