Australia has warned the Solomon Islands its security pact with China may put the tiny Pacific nation’s sovereignty at risk.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said on Sunday he took the Solomons’ leaders’ word that they would not allow China to build a naval base in their country, but warned that China had built bases in the South China Sea after vowing never to do that.
“Obviously for the Solomons, I take their word but I say be really careful to invite a totalitarian power into your country because it’s going to affect your sovereignty,” Joyce told national broadcaster the ABC.
The Solomons’ security pact with China has become an issue to the lead-up to the Australian election on May 21, with the opposition Labor Party saying the Morrison-Joyce coalition government created an opportunity for China to court the Pacific island nation by cutting its foreign aid by 28%.
Critics of Prime Minister Scott Morrison have called the pact Australia’s biggest diplomatic failure in the Pacific since World War Two.
The agreement, announced earlier this month, is seen as a major inroad for China in the resource-rich Pacific, where the United States has long been the dominant influence along with allies Australia and New Zealand.
China has said the pact will help the Solomon Islands maintain social order and cope with natural disasters and humanitarian relief. It said it poses no risk to the US, while the Solomons said it will not undermine regional peace.
US Visit to Honiara
A high-level US delegation led by Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell visited Honiara, capital of the island nation, on Friday, and warned during a “substantial discussion” on the security agreement that it would “respond accordingly” to any Chinese military presence in the region.
The US plans to speed up the opening of an embassy in Honiara, while boosting cooperation on unexploded ordinance (from World War Two) and sending the Mercy hospital ship to address health issues.
Washington would also deliver more vaccines and would advance climate and health initiatives.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton, in an interview with Sky News, defended the government’s stance, saying that it was hard for Australia to compete with China because its pattern of foreign engagement included tactics such as “corrupt payments” to achieve its goals.
“If you look at what’s happened in Africa, there are corrupt payments being made – we could never compete with that sort of playbook,” Dutton said, without providing evidence.
He did not comment on whether corrupt payments had been made in the Solomons case.
“We don’t want any military presence from the Chinese only 1,800 to 2,000 kilometres off our coastline,” he said.
“The reality is that China has changed. China’s incredibly aggressive – the acts of foreign interference, the preparedness to pay bribes to get outcomes, and to beat other countries to deals – that’s the reality of the modern China.”
The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to requests for comment outside business hours.
• Jim Pollard with reporting by Reuters
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