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Australia has been warned Chinese military troops, ships and aircraft could arrive in the Solomon Islands within weeks.
There are growing fears China will act swiftly to establish a military base less than 2,000km from Australian shores after its security pact with the South Pacific island nation was finalised on Tuesday.
Security experts expect Beijing to have ‘boots on the ground’ by the time Australians go to the polls next month.
He warned China’s long term aim is to have a permanent military presence in the Pacific.
Solomon Islands have cemented ties with China with a new security pact finalised this week. Pictured are Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2019
‘They would want to have boots on the ground and establish a concrete presence there – living quarters, possibly a small dock on the pretext of refuelling a supply ship,’ Mr McGregor told The Australian.
‘Once you have a presence there with the various leasehold arrangements, it’s pretty hard to make you leave. Once you have that, if the circumstances allow, you can expand it.’
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings believes the pact will ‘absolutely’ lead to a military base and that Beijing will move quickly to start to carrying out ‘major projects’.
‘We can expect China to seek to consolidate this development very quickly by actually moving assets there, so we should expect cargo planes to arrive and ships to arrive and they’ll be unloading all manner of stuff,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘Their model is what they’ve done in the South China Sea, which is to move quickly and decisively before people are able to gather their thoughts and resist.
‘So I would imagine we would see something happen before we get to our election.’
China will likely have military troops (pictured) deployed to the Solomon Islands within weeks
Mr Jennings believes the agreement represented a serious policy failure for Australia.
‘For decades we have over-estimated our influence in the Pacific; under-invested in promoting our security; and failed to appreciate China’s strategic intent,’ he wrote in The Australian.
‘Australia’s defence policy, released in 2020, sets three fundamental goals: to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against our interests; and respond with credible military force, when required. We have failed in all three aims.’
Australian National University emeritus professor of strategic studies Hugh White believes our national defence planners face a challenge in ensuring we have the capacity to neutralise such a base if a war erupts.
‘That can be done with the right kind of investments in missiles and that’s the challenge, rather than to spend too much money on tanks, for example,’ he told the Herald.
‘Could we have prevented it? I don’t think we can prevent China becoming substantially more influential in the south-west Pacific because China will simply become too big and too rich and too important for these countries to ignore.’
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said his government had signed the deal ‘with our eyes wide open’ but declined to say when the signed version would be made public.
His foreign minister Jeremiah Manele will travel to Pacific neighbours, including Australia to allay fears about a Chinese naval base.
A draft of the deal sent shockwaves across the region when it was leaked last month, particularly measures that would allow Chinese naval deployments to the Solomon Islands.
Pictured are the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force showing the China Police Liason Team officers training
China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands could see military bases built by Beijing within 2,000km of Australia
The pact sparked a war of words during the federal election with Labor accusing the government of the ‘worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific’ since WWII.
‘This is a massive foreign policy failure on the Prime Minister’s watch,’ Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the decision to send Pacific minister Zed Seselja instead of foreign minister Marise Payne to the Solomon Islands in an attempt to stop the deal from being signed off on.
‘I’m very conscious of how visits are perceived within the Pacific. This was the right calibrated way to address this issue with the prime minister,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘One of the things you don’t do in the Pacific is you don’t throw your weight around. They’re a sovereign country and we have to respect their sovereignty.
He warned Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were under the same pressure to strike similar deals with China.
The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands could affect the South Pacific island nation’s ties with Australia. Pictured is Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (left) with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right)
Ms Payne told ABC’s 7.30pm Australia had been at the forefront of discussions about the geostrategic realities in the Pacific
‘We understand, though, that this is a very serious decision that Solomon Islands has made,’ she said.
‘We are deeply disappointed that they have chosen to go down this path.’
‘Ultimately, it is a sovereign decision for the Solomon Islands.’
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said it will be a ‘very bad day for Australia’ if China follows through with plans of setting up a military base.
‘We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast,’ he warned.
Former foreign affairs minister and Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop called the agreement ‘deeply disturbing, considering the relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands ‘has always been very close’.
‘I believe our foreign minister should be on the next plane to the Solomon Islands to talk with the government to see what’s actually been agreed,’ she told Ten News.
‘It’s the great power competition between the United States and China playing out in a region. The Solomon Islands is really close to Australia.
‘Solomon Islands has been a great friend of the United States and now it appears that it has turned its attention elsewhere and has signed a security pact with China.
‘While we don’t have all the details, this could well mean there would be Chinese military bases on Solomon Islands and that really changes the dynamic and environment in our area, in our region.’
Security experts expect Beijing to have ‘boots on the ground’ in the Solomon Islands before the Australian federal election on May 21
How China’s feud with Australia has escalated
2019: Australian intelligence services conclude that China was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties in the run-up to a May election.
April 2020: Australian PM Scott Morrison begins canvassing his fellow world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain and France are initially reluctant but more than 100 countries eventually back an investigation.
April 15: Morrison is one of the few leaders to voice sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, which the US president accuses of bias towards China.
April 21: China’s embassy accuses Australian foreign minister Peter Dutton of ‘ignorance and bigotry’ and ‘parroting what those Americans have asserted’ after he called for China to be more transparent about the outbreak.
April 23: Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud calls for G20 nations to campaign against the ‘wet markets’ which are common in China and linked to the earliest coronavirus cases.
April 26: Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye hints at a boycott of Australian wine and beef and says tourists and students might avoid Australia ‘while it’s not so friendly to China’. Canberra dismisses the threat and warns Beijing against ‘economic coercion’.
May 11: China suspends beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors. These account for more than a third of Australia’s $1.1billion beef exports to China.
May 18: The World Health Organization backs a partial investigation into the pandemic, but China says it is a ‘joke’ for Australia to claim credit. The same day, China imposes an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. Australia says it may challenge this at the WTO.
May 21: China announces new rules for iron ore imports which could allow Australian imports – usually worth $41billion per year – to be singled out for extra bureaucratic checks.
June 5: Beijing warns tourists against travelling to Australia, alleging racism and violence against the Chinese in connection with Covid-19.
June 9: China’s Ministry of Education warns students to think carefully about studying in Australia, similarly citing alleged racist incidents.
June 19: Australia says it is under cyber-attack from a foreign state which government sources say is believed to be China. The attack has been targeting industry, schools, hospitals and government officials, Morrison says.
July 9: Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offers to extend the visas of 10,000 Hong Kongers who are already in Australia over China’s national security law which effectively bans protest.
August 18: China launches 12-month anti-dumping investigation into wines imported from Australia in a major threat to the $6billion industry.
August 26: Prime Minster Scott Morrison announces he will legislate to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy. Analysts said it is aimed at China.
October 13: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he’s investigating reports that Chinese customs officials have informally told state-owned steelmakers and power plants to stop Aussie coal, leaving it in ships off-shore.
November 2: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud reveals China is holding up Aussie lobster imports by checking them for minerals.
November 3: Barley, sugar, red wine, logs, coal, lobster and copper imports from Australia unofficially banned under a directive from the government, according to reports.
November 18: China releases bizarre dossier of 14 grievances with Australia.
November 27: Australian coal exports to China have dropped 96 per cent in the first three weeks of November as 82 ships laden with 8.8million tonnes of coal are left floating off Chinese ports where they have been denied entry.
November 28: Beijing imposed a 212 per cent tariff on Australia’s $1.2 billion wine exports, claiming they were being ‘dumped’ or sold at below-cost. The claim is denied by both Australia and Chinese importers.
November 30: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a doctored image showing a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The move outraged Australians.
December 12: Australian coal is added to a Chinese blacklist.
January 11, 2021: Australia blocks $300million construction deal that would have seen state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation takeover Probuild. The bid was blacked over national security concerns.
February 5, 2021: China confirms Melbourne journalist and single mother Cheng Lei has been formally arrested after being detained in August, 2020.
February 23, 2021: China accuses Australia of being in an ‘axis of white supremacy’ with the UK, USA, Canada and NZ in an editorial.
March 11, 2021: Australia is accused of genocide by a Communist Party newspaper editor.
March 15, 2021: Trade Minister Dan Tehan announced he wants the World Trade Organisation to help mediate discussions between the two countries over the trade dispute.
April 21, 2021: Foreign Minister Marise Payne announces Australia has scrapped Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road deal with China using new veto powers.
May 6, 2021: China indefinitely suspends all strategic economic talks with Australia, blaming the Morrison Government’s attitude towards the relationship. The move cuts off all diplomatic contact with Beijing under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, freezing discussions between key officials below a ministerial level.
June 22, 2021: China tries to ‘ambush’ Australia with a push to officially declare the Great Barrier Reef ‘in danger’
September 15, 2021: Australia, the UK and the US announce the AUKUS security pact which will give the Australian military nuclear-powered submarines to counter China growing aggression in the Indo Pacific. The move is met with seething anger in Beijing.
March 24, 2022: Details of a Memorandum of Understanding emerge which could allow Beijing to station warships on the Solomon Islands, just 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia. Canberra warns it is ‘concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region’.