The federal Opposition has accused the Morrison government of being asleep at the wheel following revelations China is planning to set up a possible naval base in one of Australia's closest neighbours, prompting fears over how China could use such a military foothold.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Anthony Albanese blasted the government's record in the Pacific, citing key failures as helping push Australia's neighbours into the arms of the Chinese government.
The Labor leader said increasing foreign aid and addressing climate change are crucial to maintaining stability in the Pacific and ensuring Australia's credibility among its closest neighbours.
Mr Albanese described China's leaked deal with the Solomon Islands to station troops and build a navy base some 2,000 kilometres away as "of real concern" and said Australia needs to continue to have a strong presence in the region.
If given the opportunity to lead a government he would maintain Australia's critical foreign aid to Pacific nations.
"We wouldn't have cut funding to aid," he told reporters this morning. "That was short-sighted."
The Opposition leader also took a swipe at the government over the perception of Australia in the region when it comes to climate change action, years after Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison and former prime minister Tony Abbott were caught on a microphone mocking the existential threat of global warming for Pacific island nations.
Mr Albanese cited the importance of "increasing our credibility by acting on the most important issue in the region, which is climate change."
China could block trade from Solomon base
New Zealand researcher and China foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Brady believes the Solomon deal is an "alarming" development for Australia and New Zealand.
Ms Brady, who has been a target of intimidation, surveillance and harassment over her critical work on China, has warned Xi Jinping could threaten vital trade routes from a Solomon Islands outpost, potentially threatening Australian exports.
"The new agreement has implications for the security of the whole of the Pacific," she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday.
"If a hostile power controls a base on the Solomons, they could block shipping traffic from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean, into the Coral Sea, and beyond."
Despite Australia being the biggest donor to Pacific islands and the Morrison government spending billions to prop up the government in the Solomon Islands and quell social unrest, experts say Australia's policies aren't achieving the desired results.
"That China has been able to persuade Solomon Islands to consider an intrusive security agreement raises questions about our understanding of how power and influence are exercised in the Pacific," researchers wrote in The Conversation on Friday.
Solomon Island confirms leaked agreement
In a statement on Friday, the Solomon Islands said "broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.
It also flagged how the deal would translate positively on the ground with the inclusion of development funding.
"The proposed security arrangements have a development dimension to it, covering humanitarian needs of the country besides maintaining the rule of law".
According to early outlines of the agreement, it could lead to a permanent military base and intelligence listening posts in the region for the Chinese government, reportedly causing deep anxiety in Canberra.
Scott Morrison refuses to meet new Chinese ambassador
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says there will be no diplomatic thaw in relations with China until it lifts a block on ministerial meetings.
"So long as China continues to refuse to have dialogue with Australian ministers and the prime minister, I think that's an entirely proportional response," Mr Morrison told reporters on Saturday regarding his refusal to meet with China's incoming ambassador.
"That would be a demonstration of weakness and I can assure you as prime minister that's the last message I'd ever send to China."
Throughout much of Mr Morrison's term as prime minister, Chinese ministers have refused to pick up the phone to their Australian counterparts.
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