Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not spoken with the prime minister of Solomon Islands since the Australian election campaign began but insists he wants to put the countries’ relationship back on a positive footing.
The Australian prime minister made the remarks on Wednesday, a day after his Pacific island counterpart Manasseh Sogavare launched a thinly veiled criticism of some politicians’ language about Solomon Islands in the wake of the controversial security agreement with China.
Sogavare said Solomon Islands was charting a course “as an independent sovereign nation” and should not be seen as “tucked away in the back yard of some countries”.
Sogavare did not name any individuals, but the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, is among a number of Australian politicians to have said Australia was “very concerned about anything that is happening in our back yard in the Pacific region”.
Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten has also previously accused the Australian government of “a major foreign policy blunder” and said that “when we’ve got these sorts of agreements being signed in our back yard, that’s the day job of the Morrison government”.
Pacific island countries have long objected to the notion that they are in the back yard of larger regional powers.
“That term is offensive to us,” Sogavare told parliament in Honiara on Tuesday.
“In custom, back yard is where the toilet is. It is where pig and chicken pens are located. It is where rubbish is collected and burned … It is an area of the house where we relieve ourselves.
“I call on those people who continue to brand us as their back yard to stop calling us that name and start to respect us as a sovereign independent nation with one equal vote in the United Nations.”
The personal relationship between Sogavare and Morrison is clearly strained, following confirmation in the early stages of the Australian election campaign that Solomon Islands had signed the security agreement with China.
Last week, Sogavare accused the Australian government of hypocrisy in criticising the secrecy around that deal, suggesting Australia, the US and the UK had not been upfront with Pacific island countries about the Aukus plans.
That prompted Morrison to tell reporters the positions of the Solomon Islands’ and Chinese governments were now “remarkably similar”.
Morrison was asked on Wednesday to describe any recent conversations with Sogavare.
“I have had no discussions with him since the election was called and from since he’s made those comments,” Morrison said.
“I’d be looking forward to the opportunity on the other side of the election to continue to manage that relationship positively.”
Despite the finalisation of the new security agreement with China, Morrison said Australia remained “Solomon Islands’ primary security partner”.
Pressed on the accusation that Sogavare was parroting Beijing’s words, Morrison said: “That was others’ commentary. They were not my words.”
While it is true Morrison did not use that form of words, he did not contradict the suggestion when asked by a journalist.
Morrison said he had spoken with Sogavare the day after the Aukus announcement in September 2021, as part of a round of calls with many leaders briefing them on what had been negotiated.
“I did have that conversation with the prime minister [Sogavare] the day following the announcement, and no issues were raised at that time in that discussion,” Morrison told reporters in Tasmania.
“But obviously, as time goes on and new relationships are entered into, there’s obviously been some clearly other influences in the perspective taken by the Solomon Islands prime minister. Now, I understand that.”
When a journalist asked whether Morrison was saying Sogavare was parroting China’s rhetoric, the Australian prime minister replied: “There’s a remarkable similarity between those statements and those of the Chinese government.”
Sogavare used his most recent address to parliament to reiterate that countries “have nothing to be concerned about” regarding the security agreement with China.
“We deplore the continual demonstration of lack of trust by the concerned parties and attaching a warning of military intervention in Solomon Islands if their national and strategic interests is undermined in Solomon Islands,” Sogavare said on Tuesday.
He also repeated the claim, denied by Canberra, that Australia had refused to allow its police and defence force personnel to protect Chinese-built infrastructure and the Chinese embassy during last year’s unrest in Honiara.
He also accused Australian media of “deliberately feeding misinformation to its population”.
The final terms of the security agreement between China and Solomon Islands have yet to be released.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/ PACNEWS