The Morrison government appeared to seriously insult the Solomon Islands’ leader with a weak attempt at lobbying him on China, a top local MP has said.
Peter Kenilorea Jr is an opposition MP, chair of the parliament’s foreign relations committee and a long-time critic of the Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, and the rise in Chinese influence in his latest term.
On Tuesday, Mr Kenilorea contradicted assurances from Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia had done as best it could to try to dissuade Mr Sogavare from signing up for a military deal with Beijing. He also questioned the reliability of Mr Sogavare’s statements dismissing a move on Chinese military installations which our Prime Minister had cited assuredly on Tuesday.
The terms of a draft security pact between the two nations could give China the green light for a military installation, critics of the plan in the region and beyond argue.
A base in the Solomons would hand Beijing a foothold in a region it has been wooing hard for more than a decade with diplomacy, aid and loans.
America is reopening its long-closed embassy and sending close Joe Biden adviser, Asia policy tsar and former assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, for talks on an urgent timetable.
Australia instead sent two top intelligence officials to offer a briefing, which has drawn questions from the opposition about why no one of equivalent status could represent the Australian government.
Left for Zed
Mr Kenilorea said Australia’s choice of delegation sent signals that would have offended the Sogavare government.
“[Mr Sogavare] would have taken it as an affront that some officials are going to see him,” Mr Kenilorea said on Tuesday.
“These kinds of things he takes very, very seriously as an affront.
“I don’t know whether you deliberately did it to antagonise him, but it will definitely do that.
“He comes back to [… and says] ‘you’re not respecting us’.
“If you want to see him, come up with a level that is also commensurate with his level.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne failed to answer questions about the issue when The New Daily contacted her office on Tuesday.
But it was announced soon afterwards that outer cabinet member Pacific Minister Zed Seselja would be making his way to Honiara.
Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday, Mr Morrison brushed off the suggestion that Australia had been cursory in lobbying Honiara, given the strategic risk at play but also Australia’s status as the country’s largest development partner.
The same song
“You heard from the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, that is not something that they would allow to occur,” Mr Morrison said while on a stop in the electorate of Parramatta.
“He made that very clear.”
But Mr Kenilorea argued there was no reason to believe Mr Sogavare’s statements about China were true after he so frequently denied long planning to dump Taiwan before doing just that.
The Solomon Islands switched the country’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to China in 2019, opening the door to rewards from its new partnership but also sending anxiety and rivalry between world powers’ interests in the Pacific to new heights.
“I think commitments have already been made,” he said.
“Issues are being used to [perhaps] try and quell the attention that [the security pact] is getting now.”
The government said late last month that the security deal with China had been “initialled” by officials in both nations but that it would be refined and formally approved later.
Mr Kenilorea says a draft Memorandum of Understanding leaked out of the Solomon Islands parliament earlier in March suggests top figures in each nation are backing a deal that likely already allows for infrastructure with military use or with a dual-use which could then be expanded.
The memo suggested a report on security arrangements including military agreements for Cabinet approval, according to Reuters.
“It leaves it very open in terms of what China can do, in terms of their relations in this particular area of security,” Mr Kenilorea said.
“The wording in it looks very, very much like an understanding.”
Under democratic norms in the Solomon Islands, such a memo could only have been drafted by the government’s executive branch, suggesting Mr Sogavare’s personal involvement.
Mr Kenilorea says it reminds him exactly of the lead up to the decision to dump Taipei.
On that occasion, Mr Sogavare’s government was revealed to have made far-advanced plans for a total overhaul of the country’s relationship with Beijing, including even a banned proposal to lease an entire island to a Chinese company, while insisting he had an open mind on an issue as it was investigated by a parliamentary inquiry.
Mr Sogavare has denied that the draft security deal will allow China to build military infrastructure. Despite being repeated by Mr Morrison, it has met with private and public skepticism elsewhere in the region. David Panuelo, leader of US ally the Federated States of Micronesia expressed “grave concerns” about the “unprecedented” deal.
Security policy in even the tiniest Pacific states has taken on outsized importance since the Solomon Islands’ diplomacy shift; shipping lanes and supply lines in the region are vital to the projection of global power.
Mr Kenilorea’s father was the first post-independence leader of the Solomon Islands.
Documents circulating freely on local social media this week, which could not be verified independently, said the Solomons Island government had last year approved a request from China’s foreign ministry to send several types of firearm and a force of 10 plainclothes police to the country.
The wellbeing of the country’s Chinese population has been a big concern for Beijing and a justification for its growing involvement in the Solomon Islands’ security arrangements, since deadly violence rocked the capital late last year.
Australian peacekeepers on the island, first dispatched by the Howard government in 2003, were sent home not long after the November unrest broke out.
Tuesday’s campaign focus on international security and China, which Mr Morrison had been styling as a key part of the Coalition pitch, began after Labor leader Anthony Albanese criticised Australia’s declining influence in the Pacific.
“Why wasn‘t a minister dispatched to the Solomons?” Mr Albanese said before pairing his following remarks with a reference to the title of a vaunted government foreign policy white paper on reshaping Australia’s place in the region.
“Australia needs to step up – not just in a title; we need to step up in reality.”