Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton is warning China will not waste any time expanding its presence in the South Pacific, after signing its controversial security pact with Solomon Islands.
The deal between the governments in Beijing and Honiara has sent shock waves across the Pacific, with fears the move will allow China to base military assets in the region.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his Solomon Islands counterpart, Manasseh Sogavare, has insisted no Chinese military bases would be built in his country.
However, that has not dampened concerns that China could use existing infrastructure for refuelling and replenishment to support its operations in the South Pacific.
A leaked draft of the agreement from last month showed that Beijing could be allowed to deploy forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”, and “make ship visits, to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in, Solomon Islands”.
Dutton dismissed suggestions from some analysts that China could start to move before the Australian federal election on 21 May, saying the claims were not based on “intelligence”.
However, he did concede that he expected Beijing to start shifting its focus soon, citing its recent history.
“President Xi looked President Obama in the eye and said that the 20 points of reclaimed islands on the South China Sea would not be militarised.
“Today they are militarised.”
Dutton’s reference was to a meeting between the Chinese and U.S presidents in 2015, where Xi Jinping gave assurances that his administration would not be looking to build military bases in the South China Sea.
The Coalition has fended off accusations from Labor that it has woefully mismanaged the situation developing on its doorstep.
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong described the signing of the pact as the greatest Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific in almost 80 years.
However, Dutton suggested Australia’s bargaining position was always going to be weaker than that of China, even though he avoided specifically answering questions on whether he thought Chinese money had been flowing into Solomon Islands in a bid to clinch the security deal.
“China operates by very different rules than Australia does,” he told Channel Seven.
“We’ve seen that in Africa. We’ve seen it in many other countries around the world.
“Australia is a respected partner with the Solomon Islands. We’ve provided support to them. We’ll continue to do that, because they’re family, but we operate by a different set of rules.”
The controversial pact between Solomon Islands and China featured in Wednesday night’s first leader’s debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese.
During the debate, the Opposition Leader labelled a suggestion from the Prime Minister that Labor was siding with China on issues of national security as “an outrageous slur”
Senator Wong said Labor has been clear in its position on China, and recognised the “increased aggression” displayed towards Australia.
One of Labor’s central criticisms of the Coalition’s handling of the Solomon Islands deal is that the Prime Minister should have dispatched his Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, to Honiara to try to steer the government away from its partnership with Beijing, rather than send his more-junior Minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja.
Morrison said that was appropriate, given the sensitivities of the situation, and did not want to be seen as “stomping” all over Solomon Islands.
Senator Wong said that claim was hypocritical.
“He was happy to tell them what to do when he turned up to a Pacific Leaders Forum and pushed the leaders hard to take out reference to the climate crisis, which they wanted to put in.
“So Morrison is very selective about when he wants to throw his weight around.”
The United States’ former ambassador to Solomon Islands said countries such as Australia should have seen China muscling in to the Pacific on the horizon.
Catherine Ebert-Gray was Washington’s envoy between 2016 and 2019.
“We’ve all been aware that China’s interested in more defence activity and partnership, and they’ve come around to other Pacific nations.
“It was probably bound to happen somewhere, but it is interesting that Solomon Islands, just two years ago, recognised Taiwan, and here they are in a security agreement with China.”
Ambassador Ebert-Gray said it should prompt a rethink in how countries, including Australia, deal with their Pacific neighbours.
“We probably needed to be more direct, we probably have should have stepped up and [in] other ways too, not just security,” she said.
“I think what Prime Minister Sogavare is looking for is more support, rebuilding his nation, helping his people in remote areas, helping his economy and his security.”
On whether it would give China a greater military footprint in the South Pacific, Ambassador Ebert-Gray said it was “too soon to predict that”.
“Hopefully, Solomon Islands will be wise enough to balance this relationship,” she said.
“That’s what’s going to be important that we continue to be good partners, and we continue to be there when they need us,” she said.