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Labor frontbencher Jason Clare has hit back at Scott Morrison after the prime minister tried to deflect blame about China’s presence in the Pacific by pointing out previous comments from Labor deputy leader Richard Marles.
“This happened on Scott Morrison’s watch. This is an epic fail when it comes to foreign policy,” Mr Clare said.
“Scott Morrison will do everything he can today and expect for the next few weeks to try to blame someone else for this, because that is what he does.
“Whether it’s the premier, or the opposition, or whether it’s the president of another country, he’ll always try to blame someone else. But the fact is, they had the intel and they didn’t act.”
Mr Morrison claimed today Mr Marles had said nations in the Pacific should be free to deal with China, but Mr Clare clarified the comments, which feature in a book.
“What Richard said quite plainly here is there’s a competition happening. China’s changed. They have become more assertive, there’s a competition here in the Pacific,” he said.
“The challenge for us is, we’ve got to win this competition.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re the partner of choice for Pacific island countries, when they need help.”
Mr Clare also echoed comments from Mr Marles today, claiming Australia had been “winning the strategic contest” against China for relations in the Pacific when Labor was in government.
“Now, they were under us, and it’s pretty obvious from what’s happened in the other week, we no longer are,” he said.
Mr Clare said the government needs to expect China will try to “assert influence” and “make sure we respond”.
“We knew about this in August. And what did we do? It seems two-thirds of bugger-all. As a result, this security agreement has now been signed between China and the Solomon Islands.”
He pointed out Mr Morrison told journalists two days ago the deal “wasn’t a surprise” and questioned why the government had not acted sooner.
“If this wasn’t a surprise, it just makes it worse. It means he knew about it and he didn’t do anything about it,” Mr Clare said.
“It’s a pattern of behaviour here. On bushfires, he was too slow to act. On vaccines, when we were locked down, waiting for a vaccine – too slow to act.
“When it came to the floods, when people were on their roofs having to hire their own helicopters, he was too slow to act. Here again, it looks obvious the prime minister was too slow to act.”
Earlier, the prime minister dismissed fears about a military base being set up in the Pacific.
A draft of the agreement – which would allow China to send police and military personnel to the Solomon Islands “to assist in maintaining social order”, while also opening the door for Chinese warships to stop in port there for “logistical replenishment” – leaked online last month.
It emerged this week the deal had been formally signed by Chinese and Solomons leaders, though the full details are yet to be publicly revealed.
“Solomon Islands switched allegiances to China three years ago, that’s how long this has been coming. You undercooked this big time, didn’t you? It’s embarrassing,” Today host Karl Stefanovic asked Mr Morrison.
“The Chinese government doesn’t play by the same rules as other transparent liberal democracies and that means there are vulnerabilities in our region which we’re very well aware of and have been working hard to ensure we can mitigate,” the prime minister replied.
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles earlier said Australia had been “winning the strategic contest” against China for relations in the Pacific when Labor was in government.
“I would not have imagined that this government could have stuffed it up so badly that on their watch you would see this agreement being signed between China and Solomon Islands and it is definitely a watershed moment which absolutely raises the threat.
“(It) certainly raises my anxiety about Chinese military presence in the region.
“But what that speaks to is total failure of the Morrison government to make themselves the partner of choice.”
Mr Morrison attempted to discredit the deputy Labor leader, claiming he’d advocated for nations in the Pacific to deal with China.
China has denied its controversial security deal with the Solomon Islands lacks transparency, as an MP confirms the still-secret final agreement is “very close” to the leaked version that alarmed Australia and other Western allies.
Solomon Islands MP and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Relations chairman Peter Kenilorea Jr yesterday added to domestic criticism of the deal.
Australia and the US have publicly expressed concerns about deal and the secrecy surrounding it.
“The Australian Government, the US Government has the same position in relation to Beijing and Taipei as the Solomon Islands government have,” Mr Morrison said.
“They’re a sovereign government, they make their own decisions.
“They’re not an extension of Australia, not a colony.
“I don’t treat the Pacific family in that way but it doesn’t mean there aren’t vulnerabilities and pressures being placed by the Chinese government in ways we’ve seen in other parts of the world.”