Australian officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have used rare talks with their Chinese counterparts to raise “serious concerns” about Beijing’s new security pact with Solomon Islands and to stress the depth of Australia’s connections with the Pacific.
Mid-ranking public servants from both countries held the virtual talks on the Pacific last Friday.
The ABC was told that the Department’s most senior diplomats – including the Head of the Office of the Pacific, Ewen McDonald – did not participate.
The Department’s account of the discussion was heavily focused on China’s contentious agreement with Solomon Islands.
A host of senior Australian politicians have warned the pact could destabilise the region, while Australian security agencies fear it could open the door to a Chinese military presence in the Pacific Island nation down the track.
In a statement the Department said the officials “raised directly with their Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts Australia’s serious concerns about the Solomon Islands-China security agreement, the lack of transparency and its implications for continuing regional security and stability”.
The statement also said that Australian officials “emphasised that Australia is a Pacific nation with deep, long-standing connections with our Pacific family across all arms of government and right across our society”.
However, multiple Australian government sources emphasised that the talks had been in the works for several months, and were not triggered by news of the security pact.
The Department first proposed reviving the diplomatic dialogue after senior Chinese diplomat Wang Xining wrote an opinion piece late last year declaring that Beijing wanted to help Australia restore order in Solomon Islands in the wake of devastating riots.
Australian officials viewed that offer with deep scepticism.
Analysts said at the time that Australia likely proposed resuming talks on the Pacific because it would allow the government to effectively call Beijing’s bluff if it declined to participate.
Still, sources told the ABC that landing a formal exchange with even mid-ranking Chinese officials had been a time-consuming process, and that the discussion had not led to any real breakthroughs.
In its statement the Department said its officials “reinforced Australia’s abiding commitment to the security architecture of our region, including the Boe Declaration and Biketawa Declaration and the Treaty of Rarotonga”.
The Department also said they emphasised that “the Pacific family remains best placed to meet the security needs of Pacific island countries comprehensively” – repeating one of the main lines the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have used to undermine the China-Solomon Islands pact.
The Department added that both countries “exchanged views” on a host of other regional issues including “climate change adaptation and resilience, COVID-19 response and recovery, fisheries and maritime issues, and infrastructure development across the region”.
The meeting was held on the same day that Foreign Minister Marise Payne met her Solomon Islands counterpart Jeremiah Manele for the first time since the Pacific Island country signed the contentious pact with China.
Senator Payne said that Manele used that meeting in Brisbane to reaffirm that Solomon Islands would not permit China to establish a military base, and to again state that Australia remains his country’s primary security partner.
The Solomon Islands Foreign Minister is now in Fiji for talks with senior officials as he begins a tour aimed at calming regional anxieties about the agreement with China.
But the Solomon Islands Opposition has slammed the government’s tactics, saying it should have consulted other Pacific nations about the pact before signing it, rather than after.
The flurry of talks comes against the backdrop of increasing hostility between Australia and the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogavare, who last week lashed out once against at the West, accusing it of deliberately undermining his government and plotting an invasion.
The ABC has asked the Chinese Embassy if it has any comment on the talks, but has not yet received a response..