China-Solomons security deal upends Australian election

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison plays rugby with children in the Solomon Islands in 2019. His first foreign trip after winning the last election was to the Solomons (AFP/Adam TAYLOR) (Adam TAYLOR)
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Beijing's security deal with the Solomon Islands has transformed Australia's closely-fought election campaign into a foreign policy battle over Canberra's complicated relationship with the Pacific.

Australia's Liberal government lobbied hard against the Solomons signing the pact, alongside ally the United States, but neither was successful in dissuading Honiara.

The final text is not public but a leaked draft sent shockwaves across the region last month, particularly sections that would allow Chinese naval deployments to the Solomons -- less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Australia.

On the campaign trail ahead of the May 21 polls, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced intense questioning about his handling of the pact and his government's "Pacific Step-Up" strategy to improve ties with the region.

The issue flared up again on Friday when Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare lambasted Australia over its AUKUS security deal with the United States and Britain, saying he only learned of the agreement through media reports.

He said the Pacific "should have been consulted to ensure this AUKUS treaty is transparent, since it will affect the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters".

- Banquets vs barbecues -

Pacific expert Tess Newton Cain of Griffith University told AFP that Australia's leaders need to improve their understanding of the region's culture and customs.

While Beijing tends to fete Pacific leaders with formal diplomacy and lush banquets, "the [Australian] prime minister invites the Pacific family round for a barbecue".

"I think the perception is that plays well to an Australian domestic audience. But in the Pacific, it can look a little disrespectful," she said.

In 2019, Newton Cain led a research group who spoke to people across the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji where they found many wanted their relationship with Australia -- still considered their most important -- to be better.

"Some people said to us they felt the way Pacific Islanders were treated by Australians could be condescending, that they felt they weren't given sufficient agency," she said.

Others expressed frustration over difficulties obtaining visas for Australia to visit family and friends.

Unlike travellers from many countries, Pacific Islanders are asked for "huge amounts of personal information" including a guarantee they will not overstay.

"It's a really intrusive process," Newton Cain said.

- 'Pacific stuff-up' -

Australia's Labor opposition party has seized on the Solomons-China deal to argue the government's Pacific Step-Up -- launched soon after its 2019 election win -- has failed.

"This is a massive foreign policy failure... This is a Pacific stuff-up," opposition leader Anthony Albanese said.

Labor announced a suite of Pacific-focused policies after the China pact was revealed, including an annual visa lottery offering permanent residency to 3,000 Pacific Islanders.

For his part, Morrison has defended Pacific Step-Up, noting that "after the last election, the first place I went as prime minister was to the Solomon Islands".

He has said a Chinese military base in the Solomons is a "red line", while acknowledging assurances from Sogavare that this will not happen.

Asked Saturday about claims by Beijing that Australia's response to the deal "amounts to disinformation, defamation, coercion and intimidation and exposes a colonial mentality", Morrison was blunt.

"Well, the Chinese government would say that, wouldn't they?" he said.

Newton Cain believes much can be done to improve Australia's ties with the Pacific. Deploying more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander emissaries across the region would be welcomed, 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."

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