China-Solomons security deal upends Australian election
China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement, affecting Canberra's complicated relationship with the Pacific.
Signing a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has turned Australia's closely fought election campaign into a foreign policy struggle over Canberra's difficult relationship with the Pacific.
Australia's Liberal government, together with the United States, pushed aggressively against the Solomons joining the deal, but was unsuccessful in convincing Honiara otherwise.
The full wording is not yet available, but a leaked copy caused shockwaves around the region last month, notably, passages that would authorize Chinese naval deployments to the Solomon Islands, which are less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia.
On the campaign trail ahead of the May 21 election, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been grilled about the treaty and his government's Pacific Step-Up initiative to strengthen ties with the area.
The matter resurfaced on Friday, when Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare chastised Australia for its AUKUS security arrangement with the United States and the United Kingdom, claiming that he first learned of the accord from media reports.
He claimed that the Pacific "should have been consulted to guarantee that this AUKUS treaty is transparent because it will damage the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters."
The Solomons-China agreement has been used by Australia's Labor opposition party to argue that the government's Pacific Step-Up initiative, which was unveiled shortly after its 2019 election victory, was a failure.
"This is a massive foreign policy failure... This is a Pacific stuff-up," opposition leader Anthony Albanese said.
Following the announcement of the China pact, Labor unveiled a slew of Pacific-focused measures, including an annual immigration lottery providing permanent residency to 3,000 Pacific Islanders.
Morrison, for his part, has supported Pacific Step-Up, saying that "the first place I visited as prime minister following the last election was the Solomon Islands."
He has stated that a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands is a "red line", despite assurances from Sogavare and China that this will not happen.
Read next: Morrison: Chinese military base on Solomon Islands 'red line'
Morrison was forthright when asked Saturday about Beijing's assertions that Australia's response to the deal "amounts to disinformation, defamation, coercion, and intimidation and exposes a colonial mentality."
"Well, the Chinese government would say that, wouldn't they?" he said.
Newton Cain believes that there is still plenty that may be done to strengthen Australia's relations with the Pacific. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander emissaries would be welcomed around the region, she said.
But she added that Australian diplomats need to shift away from thinking about the Pacific as their "training ground".
"This is where Australia lives... We need to be thinking about these relationships all the time, on an ongoing basis."