A former senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army has laughed off suggestions that Beijing takes Australia’s concerns about its new pact with the Solomon Islands seriously.
China and the Solomon Islands recently signed a security pact, and Australia and the US now fear Beijing will use the deal as an opportunity to expand its military presence in the Pacific.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said any attempt by China to build a naval base on the Solomons would cross a “red line”.
“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” Morrison said on Sunday, without elaborating on how he would respond if China built one.
But Chinese military expert Zhou Bo said it was “ridiculous” to think that President Xi Jinping would think twice about a warning from Canberra.
“I don’t believe the Australian government is in any capacity to lay such things like a red line for China. It is ridiculous. It is laughable for me,” he told the ABC’s China Tonight.
“When you talk about a ‘red line’, that is extremely ridiculous. Could you lay a red line in a sovereign state like Solomon Islands? It’s not in any part of Australia.
“I don’t believe the Australian government is in any capacity to lay any red line for China’s cooperation with Solomon Islands.
“Besides, we two are sovereign states, and we certainly are fully entitled to have whatever cooperation we want. So, this has nothing to do with Australia.”
Zhou also claimed Australia only had itself to blame for the Solomon Islands choosing to align itself closer to China, whereas in recent years it had leaned on Canberra for support.
“I believe you are not doing good enough,” the international security expert said. “Otherwise, why would the Solomon Islands government ask the Chinese to help, since you are much closer? So, why don’t you search your own self to find out why the situation has actually happened?”
He added that he did not think China had any ambition to build a military base in the Solomons as he believes Beijing has no interest in being a “global policeman”.
The deal between China and the Solomon Islands shocked Australia and the U.S, which fear it may give China a military foothold in the South Pacific less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia’s coast.
China has consistently denied claims that it is harbouring ambitions to build a naval base on the islands.
“The Chinese don’t play by our rules,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton said.
“If you look at what has happened in Africa, there are corrupt payments being made,” he told Sky News Australia. “We can never compete with that sort of playbook. We have values and we have the rule of law that we abide by.”
Asked specifically if he believed corrupt payments were made to forge China’s deal with the Solomon Islands, which was announced by Beijing on 19 April, the minister said he could not comment.
“The reality is that China has changed,” he added.
“China’s incredibly aggressive acts of foreign interference, the preparedness to pay bribes to beat other countries to deals: that’s the reality of modern China.”
A draft of the pact shocked countries in the region when it was leaked last month, particularly measures that would allow Chinese naval deployments to the Solomons.
Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers accused Morrison’s government of “undermining our national security with all of this chest-beating on China at the same time as their incompetence has meant that China is setting up on our doorstep”.
A White House delegation visited the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on Friday to warn of repercussions if China was to establish a permanent military presence in the Pacific nation under the new agreement.
The White House said the officials had told Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that the recently signed pact had “potential regional security implications” for Washington and its allies.
“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly,” the White House said in a statement.
National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink led the delegation, which also included Pentagon officials.
According to the White House statement, “Sogavare reiterated his specific assurances that there would be no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability, as he has said publicly”.
Sogavare’s government severed ties with Taiwan in September 2019 in favour of diplomatic relations with China, unlocking investment but stoking inter-island rivalries.
Last November, protests against Sogavare’s rule sparked violent riots in the capital, during which much of the city’s Chinatown was torched.
While the unrest was partly fuelled by poverty and unemployment, anti-China sentiment was also cited as playing a role.
When asked about China’s influence in the Pacific, Australia’s prime minister told reporters on Friday that Beijing was exerting “enormous pressure” on leaders of Pacific island nations.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian in turn accused “Australian politicians” of “coercive diplomacy” in the region.
Meanwhile, Labor will today reveal its policy for tackling China, should it win the federal election next month.
Labor will announce what it says is a “comprehensive plan” for Australia improve its diplomatic, security and strategic ties with its Pacific neighbours and curtail Beijing’s growing influence.
The first element of the plan involves establishing a new $6.5 million (US$4.6 million) Australia-Pacific Defence School which would provide local training for defence and security forces.
The second involves doubling Australia’s funding for aerial surveillance of illegal fishing to help 15 Pacific Island countries, who are estimated to lose about $150m(US$107 million) a year in lost access and licensing fees.
An Albanese government would also put an extra $8 million(US$5.7 million) a year towards the ABC over four years so it is able to boost content to the Indo-Pacific, promoting Australia’s values, identity and interests.