Australia’s Minister for the Pacific has used a visit to the Solomon Islands in the middle of the federal election campaign to “respectfully” urge the country’s Prime Minister not to sign a controversial security deal with China.
Zed Seselja said Australia remained committed to supporting the Solomon Islands to meet its security needs
A leaked draft of the deal indicated Beijing would be allowed to station navy ships and defense personnel in the Pacific nation
Scott Morrison denied his government had dropped the ball on the Solomon Islands relationship
Senator Zed Seselja traveled to Honiara – with Labor’s support during the caretaker period – to directly press the government’s concerns over an agreement that could allow a Chinese military presence close to Australia.
In a statement after his meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Senator Seselja said Australia remained committed to supporting the Solomon Islands to meet its security needs “swiftly, transparently and with full respect for its sovereignty”.
Senator Seselja said Australia had been a “strong partner” to the Solomon Islands for many years, supporting its security needs through the recent Solomons International Assistance Force and, earlier, through the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.
“We have asked Solomon Islands, respectfully, to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” Senator Seselja said.
Speaking to the ABC after his meeting, Senator Seselja added that it was a “frank” discussion with Mr Sogavare.
“We’ve had a dialogue,” he said.
“We expressed our view and our concern.
“We maintain that Australia can fill the security needs [of Solomon Islands], and the region. Working together, we can make sure that all of the security needs of the Solomon Islands are taken care of. “
An overseas trip by a minister during an election’s “caretaker” period is considered unusual and highlights the growing anxiety in Australia over the soon-to-be-signed deal between China and the Solomon Islands.
Under a leaked draft of the document, Beijing could be allowed to station navy ships and defense personnel to protect billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure investment in the developing country.
Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed suggestions that his government had dropped the ball on its relationship with the Solomon Islands after a leaked draft of the security pact took Australia by surprise.
Mr Morrison insisted Australia continued to work closely with Honiara, despite the Australian government currently operating in caretaker mode during the election campaign.
“We will continue to work through these sensitive issues as a Pacific Islands family,” Mr Morrison said.
“The suggestion that Australia should be heavily-handed on these matters is wrongheaded and completely misunderstands how these matters should be handled.”
Security deal ‘beneficial’ for Pacific region
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday the security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands would complement existing agreements and be “beneficial” for both the Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region.
“[The agreement] is beneficial to the social stability and lasting security of the Solomon Islands and conducive to promoting peace, stability and development of the Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region, “Mr Zhao said.
“Relevant countries should view this in an objective and reasonable light, and respect the sovereignty and independent choice of China and the Solomon Islands.
Visiting US Marines boss warns ‘geography matters’
The visiting Commander of the US Marine Corp, David Berger, has highlighted the geographical importance of the Solomon Islands, while warning the West is failing to block China’s gradual advances across the Indo-Pacific.
“You could argue that the approaches that we’ve taken in the last 10 years are not working out here,” General Berger said in an appearance at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
We’re moving forward. They’re not picking a fight. They’re achieving their objectives. We’re not successfully deterring it because – what some people call gray-zone or however you want to call it – we haven’t figured out quite how to stop that. “
General Berger also highlighted the modern-day strategic importance of the Solomon Islands, pointing to its significance during the pivotal World War II Battle of Guadalcanal.
“Where the Solomon Islands are, matters,” he said. “It did then. It does now.
“The Solomon Islands, their location matters. It’s clearly a point of contention and competition.”
Asked whether Australia had failed, diplomatically, to stop the proposed Chinese security deal, General Berger responded: “It’s not for me to judge pass or fail. It does highlight the strategic location of places in the Pacific for sure,” he said.
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