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Aussie PM nixes claims appeal to Solomon Islands was bungled

Accusations the Australian government bungled a key security relationship have been rejected by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, after the Solomon Islands shrugged off warnings from Australia and signed a new pact with China.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott at Parliament House in Canberra.
Australian PM Scott Morrison speaking in Canberra. (File photo). Photo: AFP

The controversial deal has been the subject of significant debate in recent weeks, amid fears it could allow China to establish a military presence in the South Pacific.

Labor has called the handling of the issue the greatest Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since World War II.

It questioned why the government sent Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja instead of Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne to Honiara after a draft of the pact leaked.

Senator Seselja was sent to Solomon Islands last week in a last-ditch effort to convince the government in Honiara to walk away from the deal, a trip now shown to have been fruitless.

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong said Morrison had ignored warnings about the deal last year, and should have personally intervened to ensure it was never signed.

"Securing our region at this time is such an imperative for any government that this should have been something that Mr Morrison dealt with - but he went missing," Wong said.

"I think what this still signifies is that Australia is no longer, for … Solomon Islands, the nation to whom they turn to meet their challenges in every instance.

"And, instead of taking responsibility and dealing with this as a leader should, in the interests of the nation, he sends a junior woodchuck at the last minute."

But Morrison told reporters in Adelaide he made a deliberate decision to send Senator Seselja because it would be counter-productive to publicly heap pressure on Solomon Islands over the agreement.

"The foreign minister is a different level to the minister of Pacific. One is in cabinet, one is not. You calibrate your diplomacy to deal with sensitive issues," he said.

"In the Pacific, one of the things you [have] got to be very, very cognisant of is there is a long history of frankly countries like Australia and even New Zealand and others coming around and treating Pacific Islands like they should be doing what the big countries tell them to do.

"I'm not going to act like former administrations that treated the Pacific like some extension of Australia. The Pacific Islands are very sensitive to that and I have always had an approach with the Pacific Islands which understands those sensitivities because there is a lot at stake."

The prime minister also said the whole region had been facing "intense" approaches from China, and said Beijing made "all sorts of promises" and "all sorts of investments" in the Pacific which could be "very persuasive".

"That is the challenge that we're now dealing with and we have been dealing with it for many years. It is not a new issue and these threats still remain" he said.

"I speak to other Pacific leaders about it all the time and ... you can't always be fully persuasive on these issues.

"What I assure them about is that Australia will be there for you as we always are, not because we want anything from you, but because we see the Pacific as our family."

Australia, New Zealand and the United States have all expressed concern about the precedent the situation could set for other small Pacific nations.

Australia's spy chiefs were also sent to Honiara to ventilate Australia's concerns about the pact.

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare spoke about the agreement with China in parliament this morning. (File photo). Photo: SIG news service

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare took to the floor of parliament this morning to defend the pact, declaring that his government went into the agreement with its "eyes wide open".

Sogavare also suggested the agreement would help bolster the police force in Solomon Islands, which has already received riot gear and replica guns from Chinese police.

"We intend to beef up and strengthen our police capability to deal with any future instability by properly equipping the police to take full responsibility of the country's security responsibilities, in the hope we will never be required to invoke any of our bilateral security arrangements," he said.

When asked if he'd be willing to release the full text of the agreement he gave an ambiguous response, saying it was the "way to go" but also saying he had to consult with China before making a decision.

Beijing typically does not release the text of its bilateral security agreements with other countries.

In a statement, Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, said the US convened a meeting with senior officials from Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

"The officials reaffirmed the four countries' enduring and shared commitment to the Pacific Islands," she said.

"The United States resolved to intensify its engagement in the region to meet 21st-century challenges.

"Officials from the four countries represented also shared concerns about a proposed security framework between the Solomon Islands and the People's Republic of China and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific."

Foreign affairs minister Payne rejected Wong's assessment that inaction by the Morrison government had fuelled the situation.

"I think that's an unfair characterisation, and I don't think it recognises the sovereign decisions that governments, of course, make for themselves," she said.

"We are looking at very serious geo-strategic challenges in our region, and they are realities."

Payne insisted Australia still played a significant role in the South Pacific.

"We firmly believe that the Pacific family is best placed to meet the security needs of our region - and we've consistently said that and, more importantly, we've consistently demonstrated that," she said.

However, she argued, the governments in Honiara and Beijing needed to provide more detail about exactly what the security deal would allow for.

"In relation to this agreement, we see a lack of transparency" she said.

"This has not been agreed in an open and transparent way, not been consulted, for example, across the region."

Top US official Kurt Campbell is slated to visit Solomon Islands later this week, as the United States warned of the "concerning precedent" the security deal set.

Payne said she was pleased the trip was going ahead, but avoided speculation about whether the deal could be undone.

"That's a matter for the parties," she said.