Doubt cast over Solomons security timeline

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Questions have been raised over when the federal government became aware of a draft security pact between China and the Solomon Islands after reports Australian intelligence agencies were involved in its leaking.

An Australian intelligence agency was aware of the pact days ahead of it being made public in March and played a role in leaking the text on social media, according to Nine newspapers quoting government and security sources.

The claim brings into question Foreign Minister Marise Payne informing Senate estimates she only became aware of the draft agreement after it was leaked.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintains the government has "always been aware of the risks of an agreement like this".

"I have known for some time the risk of a deal such as this coming about. This is why the first place I went to after the last election (in 2019) was the Solomon Islands," he told reporters on Thursday.

"We've been aware of the Chinese seeking to obtain an agreement like this, as they have been in Papua New Guinea and other countries in the Pacific, as they have done in African countries."

Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles accused the government of failing to build and maintain relationships in the Pacific.

"What's manifested here is this government has dropped the ball and not built any relationships. Scott Morrison is responsible for that and (Foreign Minister) Marise Payne is responsible for that," he said.

"(The agreement) definitely raises the increased prospect of Chinese military presence in the Pacific and that makes Australia less safe and that's because Scott Morrison wasn't doing his job."

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham dismissed the assertion, saying Australia continued to engage appropriately with the Solomon Islands.

"It's through those areas of engagement we've secured important commitments from the Solomon Islands to not have any foreign military bases established," he said.

"Australia remains their partner of choice when it comes to security issues and we will continue to work closely with Solomon Islands, notwithstanding our disappointment in relation to their decision to enter into this agreement with China."

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg launched an attack against Mr Marles for his comments on Chinese investment in the Solomons despite the prime minister using similar language.

"(Mr Marles) said he would encourage China's engagement in the Pacific, he dismissed any strategic concerns, he welcomed more financial assistance from China into the Pacific," he told the ABC.

"We won't take a lecture from the Labor Party on this very important issue."

But remarks by Mr Morrison featuring similar language in an address to the University of Melbourne in 2019 have also resurfaced.

"We welcome Chinese investment. We have welcomed it for decades. The stock of Chinese investment in Australia in 2018 was more than eight times larger than a decade ago," he said.

"The infrastructure needs of the region are enormous and Australia welcomes the contribution that the Belt and Road Initiative can make to regional investment and to regional development."

It comes as a senior US delegation including President Joe Biden's top Indo-Pacific security advisor Kurt Campbell held talks with Solomon Islands leaders to express concerns over Chinese influence in the region.

The delegation met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare along with two dozen members of his Cabinet, senior staff, prominent religious leaders and key members of the political opposition.

A White House readout of the delegation's travel to Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands said the US "noted there are potential regional security implications" of the security agreement.

The US says it will "respond accordingly" to steps to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities or a military installation.

Senior Labor MP Tanya Plibersek welcomed the White House commitment to expedite the opening of its embassy in Honiara.

"We are always delighted - Australia is always delighted - when the United States pays more attention to our Pacific neighbourhood."

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