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Given China’s recent interest in the region, former US ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu Catherine Ebert-Gray said she wasn’t surprised when Honiara signed a controversial security deal with Beijing.
She predicted next year’s Solomon Islands election would be the first test of what the pact, which some experts fear could allow China to build a military base on the archipelago on Australia’s doorstep, could mean for regional security.
Ebert-Gray expected any renewed violence to prompt Beijing to push to place forces on the island, potentially creating conflict with local forces.
She warned other small Pacific countries could be next, urging Canberra and Washington to do more to help the region.
“I have no doubt that they’re (China) already in discussions with other countries, they’re going to leverage this to have discussions with other countries where they may need assistance,” the University of Colorado Denver director of global education told Nine.com.au before the election.
“And there are, there are areas that they need assistance. This is a region that is very prone for natural disasters.”
China and Australia in duelling diplomatic missions
China has wasted no time doing just that. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi launched a diplomatic blitz of the region this week, leaving his Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, jetting off to Fiji just days into her new job.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a 20-strong delegation arrived in the Solomon Islands Thursday at the start of an eight-nation tour.
Micronesia’s President, David Panuelo, wrote an eight-page letter to fellow Pacific leaders warning the deal was “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes,” and it “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a world war at worst”.
At the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, Wong on Thursday urged nations to consider the benefits of sticking with Australia.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” she said.
“We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions.”
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he’d sent Wong to Fiji because Australia needed to “step up” its efforts in the Pacific.
The diplomatic efforts appeared to have some effect, prompting Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna to note the visit “represents a very strong shift in Australia’s regional outlook.”
Climate change in the Pacific
The Pacific is also on the front line of the world’s fight against climate change, a problem it has done relatively little to create but is more at risk from than most.
That dynamic has caused friction with Australia over recent years, particularly as Canberra’s climate negotiators repeatedly sought to blunt global efforts and Australian responsibilities to reduce emissions
Ebert-Gray said both the US and Australia “could be doing more” and “Australia should be more proactive”.
“They, over the last 10 years, have really become concerned about climate change,” she said of Pacific Island nations.
“That is their number one issue, climate change. And it’s for very good reason, as you know, you’re there too.
“Climate change is eroding their shores, it’s affecting their lifestyles, affecting their economies.”
Ebert-Gray said as well as mitigation measures and non-climate development efforts, Pacific Island nations were watching what Australia and the US did to fight climate change by reducing emissions.
In Fiji, Wong said the “new Australian government” signalled a “new Australia” that would work cooperatively and in partnership with Pacific nations — particularly on climate change.
Labor has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and a swathe of newly elected teal independents and Greens are calling for stronger action.
“I know the imperative we all share to take serious action to reduce emissions and transform our economies,” Wong said.
“Nothing is more central to the security and economies of the Pacific.”
Australia’s key role in Solomon Islands security
Australia leads the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), under which hundreds of soldiers, police and civilians from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and other Pacific Islands nations have been deployed to the archipelago over the past two decades.
But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare earlier this year described the agreement as “inadequate”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian earlier this month said this was “very true” and claimed it “reflected the shared voice of Pacific Island countries”.
Sogavare hit out at the “glaring hypocrisy” of “some of our partners working with their agents on the ground”.
“We are threatened with invasion, Mr Speaker, and that’s serious,” Sogavare told Parliament in a full-throated defence of the China deal.
But it was the security impacts for the wider region that surged to the fore during the election campaign.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison failed to convince voters his government was best placed to deal with the tensions, after Labor described the Solomon Islands-China deal as the worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.
The Chinese propaganda machine, in turn, accused Australia of “coercion” and trying to obstruct the Solomon Islands’ sovereign rights with a last-minute visit to the country to urge its government not to sign the agreement.
“Australia carried out shady manoeuvres with countries outside the region to put together a military bloc, which increased nuclear proliferation risks. What will you call these if not moves to hype up regional tensions and seek hegemony in the region?” Zhao said.
“The sovereignty of Solomon Islands matters. Certain Australian politicians should stop distorting facts and playing the thief calling “stop the thief”.
Ebert-Gray, who praised Australia’s efforts as the Solomon Islands’ key security partner, said a Chinese base on the archipelago was a possibility.
“I’m sure it is on the minds of the Chinese,” she said.
“This is a real strategic area and they’ve always wanted some more presence in that region. “But I’m not so sure that there’s a need for the Solomon Islands to be engaged in a military base there.”
Australia has welcomed assurances by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that he would not allow a Chinese military base on the island.
Australia has ‘lost that trust’ with Solomon Islands
Ebert-Gray is not the only experienced diplomat to highlight potential challenges for Australia in the region.
Late in the election campaign, former Australian high commissioner to the Solomons Trevor Sofield told a security summit he found it “inconceivable” that the Solomons government did not trust Australia enough to consult when a bilateral security pact with Beijing was first considered.
“That would not have happened a few years ago,” said Sofield, who served from 1982 to 1985.
Sofield, who appeared to be manhandled by security staff when he attempted to speak to Morrison at a campaign event last week, said Australia had “lost its way” in the Pacific as China scaled up its influence in the region.
“We had a vision,” he said.
“It was underpinned by the fact that if we could assist these governments reach economic security through trade and aid then they would certainly be able to manage their own affairs.”
“But we’ve lost that vision and we’ve lost that trust that we developed over time.”
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