The recently sealed Sino-Solomon Islands security pact has taken centre stage in the ongoing campaign for the federal election in Australia. The opposition Labor Party has stepped up its attack on the Morrison government, terming the security pact as a “policy failure” on part of Canberra. The federal vote is scheduled to be held on 21 May.
Two former Australian prime ministers have hit out at the country’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton, a day after the latter asked Australians to “prepare for war” with China.
Ex-Australian PM Kevin Rudd, who is from the opposition Labor Party, said on Tuesday that Australia’s governing Liberal coalition government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison had “messed up” the country’s policy towards its smaller Pacific Island nation neighbours, while commenting on the recently signed security cooperation agreement between Beijing and the Solomon Islands.
“They have messed up in the Solomons by a doing a whole bunch of silly things, like cutting Radio Australia, cutting foreign aid, not standing up to climate change and turning back of Pacific Island countries for nearly 10 years”, he told Australian broadcaster Sky News. Rudd was campaigning for a Labor candidate in the Melbourne constituency of Chisholm, which has a large presence of Chinese-Australian voters.
“You can sound off as much as you like about China”, Rudd went on.
“But unless you’ve got your defence lined up, which he hasn’t, and unless you’ve got your foreign policy lined up, which the Solomon shows he hasn’t, then people are just scratching their head”, stated Rudd, a China-expert and the author of the new book “The Avoidable War”.
His remarks came as the Labor Party’s Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced a new foreign policy pledge to boost the overseas developmental assistance (ODA) to the Pacific neighbours by $525 million if the party comes to power.
“Let’s be clear. The prospect of a Chinese base less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia’s coastline is dramatically detrimental to Australia’s security interests and that has occurred on Mr Morrison’s watch and their response appears to be more chest beating. There is no point in beating your chest if you are beaten to the punch”, Wong said while campaigning in Darwin.
As part of the pledge, Labor has vowed to set up a defence school in Australia to train security personnel from Pacific nations as well as ramp up assistance to monitor “illegal fishing” around the Pacific.
Malcolm Turnbull, another former Australian PM and a party colleague of Morrison and Dutton, said that the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands was an “absolute failure” on the part of the government’s foreign policy.
“Peter Dutton’s rhetoric is becoming more and more bombastic and belligerent. It’s just a pity he doesn’t match it with actual preparation and work […] he thinks the object of being the defence minister is having a sensational headline in a tabloid newspaper”, Turnbull told the state broadcaster on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Labor of “playing politics” with national security to win the upcoming election. On Sunday, Morrison said that Australia and the US shared the same “red line” when it came to opposing a Chinese “military base” on the Solomon Islands. Both Beijing and Honiara have on several occasions rejected allegations of crossing a red line.
Morrison highlighted that overseas assistance from Australia to Pacific nations was already a record high of $1.8 billion last year.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday, meanwhile, also slammed both the Australian prime minister and defence minister for the duo’s incendiary rhetoric against China.
“The speculation that China will build a military base in Solomon Islands is pure disinformation fabricated by a handful of people who harbour ulterior motives”, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, when asked about Morrison’s “red line”.
“Island countries in the South Pacific are independent and sovereign states, not a backyard of the US or Australia”, the Chinese official added.
Wang also slammed Dutton for claiming previously that China had “bribed” Solomon Island officials to seal the security pact.
“Certain Australian politicians are clinging to the Cold War mentality and smearing China with lies to sow discord between China and countries it has friendly ties with. The politicians should earnestly face up to the concerns of people at home and abroad, instead of spreading disinformation to disparage China for their own political gains”, Wang stated.