China is exerting “enormous pressure” on Pacific island countries because the Australian prime minister fends off questions on whether his government was caught off-guard by the security address Solomon Islands.
Morrison said it absolutely wasn’t “just as easy as memorizing the phone or sending a far off minister” after Labor characterized the signing of the deal because of the largest Australian policy failure within the Pacific since the second war.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, signaled that Labor would “have more to say” during the election campaign about rebuilding the overall public service, including the office, so on boost Australia’s diplomatic influence within the region.
Questions are being asked about when Australia knew about the security agreement being negotiated between the Solomon Islands and China, amid conflicting accounts about whether ministers were blindsided.
Morrison said he had spoken with the prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, “on several occasions this year” including “within the last month or so”, although he didn’t provide specific dates.
But it would be counterproductive for Australia to be seen as “throwing its weight around within the region”, Morrison told reporters on Friday.
“There’s enormous pressure and influence which is placed on Pacific island leaders across the region, which the Chinese government is engaged sure some time,” Morrison said during an election campaign media conference in Ipswich.
Morrison said earlier on Friday that Australia had “a superb understanding” of China’s activities within the Pacific when asked by a television host whether bribery could have played employment in the deal being inked.
Morrison said Beijing didn’t “play by the identical rules as transparent liberal democracies”.
Several Australian ministers have previously indicated they were caught off-guard after a draft of the agreement was leaked online on 24 March.
The draft raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, do logistical replenishment in and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces are used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands”.
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, was asked in an exceedingly Senate estimates hearing on 1 April when she had first become alert to the proposed deal, and said: “When it became public – I think it absolutely was a social media post on 24 March.”
New Zealand’s defense minister, Peeni Henare, said both he and also the Australian defense minister, Peter Dutton, had been caught “off-guard” by the draft deal.
“We were both surprised because the intelligence we were getting didn’t exactly match that,” Henare told Stuff within the times after the deal.
“We knew that there are some challenges there, with relevance China, but the leaked draft agreement … it did catch me as a surprise, and even minister Dutton.”
But behind the scenes, officials are briefing that the government was alert to what was occurring in Honiara prior to the leak.
Morrison refused on Friday to substantiate reports from the Nine newspapers that Australian intelligence can even have played employment within the leak of the draft agreement, saying he would “never investigate intelligence matters of that nature” which they were “highly sensitive matters”.
In the days following the leak, the opposition leader of Solomon Islands, Matthew Wale, said he had warned Australia about the draft agreement last year.
Wale said that he had warned Australia’s diplomatist to Solomon Islands, Dr. Lachlan Strahan, about the deal in August or September 2021. He said Strahan “took note of it and that’s the last I heard”.
Labor used this allegation from Wale to criticize the government for not acting sooner or more concertedly to maneuver off the deal.
Wale’s claims are disputed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which claims that a gathering between Wale and Strahan transpire in May 2021, not August 2021.
“Opposition leader Wale and officials didn’t discuss a possible security agreement with China during this meeting or the opposite,” a DFAT spokesperson said. Labor has criticized the govt..
for sending a junior minister, Zed Seselja, to Honiara last week, rather than the secretary of state or the prime minister.
The signing of the deal was announced on Tuesday.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said Morrison had not been upfront with Australians about the protection deal, noting some ministers had said “they were everywhere this” and other ministers were “saying they didn’t know”.
“We know Mr. Morrison doesn’t hold a hose – apparently he doesn’t obtain the phone either,” she told reporters in Perth on Friday. She said China was “much more assertive and much more aggressive”, and Australia needed to ensure it remained a partner of choice for the Pacific. A Labor government would bring more energy, focus, and resources to diplomacy with the Pacific, she added.
Albanese said he would pursue deeper relationships with Pacific counterparts and would announce policies later in the campaign on foreign aid and boosting Australia’s diplomatic capacity.
Speaking to ABC TV from his Sydney home where he is isolated with Covid, Albanese said Australia must be more “forward-leaning” in order to maintain its influence.
“We know that the number one concern for the Pacific is, of course, climate change and we would have a positive response on climate change,” Albanese said.
But Morrison said the Australian government had followed “a very careful process” based on “informed advice that we get from our intelligence and security agencies”.
The Coalition attempted to discredit Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, focusing on his comments from last year that “basing our actions in the Pacific on an attempt to strategically deny China would be a historic mistake’’.
“Australia has no right to expect a set of exclusive relationships with the Pacific nations,” Marles wrote in the book The Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific, according to a front-page report in News Corp’s The Australian.
“They are perfectly free to engage on whatever terms they choose with China or, for that matter, any other country. Disputing this would be resented, as the recent past has shown.”
Dutton said it was “quite startling” that Marles could have made such statements, which were “remarkably similar” to the position of the Greens.
Wong said Marles had been attempting to make the point that “we live in a world where there’s a competition for influence” and “in that world, you can’t sit back”.