Sabra Lane: The Federal Government has said it is deeply disappointed that the Solomon Islands has gone ahead and signed a security pact with China, despite a concerted diplomatic campaign by Australia and the United States. It is feared that this could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in a country less than 2,000 kilometers from the east coast of Australia. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is Marise Payne.
Minister, you say that this agreement has the potential to undermine security in the region. How?
Marise Payne: We firmly believe that the Pacific family is best placed to meet the security needs of our region, and we have always said so. And, more importantly, we have consistently demonstrated that, whether through the very important exercise of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands – RAMSI – in which, of course, Australia has engaged for a number of years, or even more recently our response to the unrest in the Solomon Islands with our partners in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji late last year. Getting the Pacific to solve Pacific problems is a proven solution that we strongly support as a priority and primary solution.
Way: Yet how will this deal erode or undermine security in the region?
Paid : Well, I think here, with respect to this agreement, we see a lack of transparency. It was not agreed in an open and transparent manner, was not consulted, for example, across the region. I mean, ultimately, this is a sovereign decision of the Solomon Islands government, and we absolutely recognize that. But thanks to the work of the Pacific Islands Forum over many years, whether it’s the Biketawa statement or the most recent Boe statement from the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru, those statements and these engagements on security issues were addressed in a Pacific-wide manner. And that’s the traditional approach to these questions. And that’s why some Pacific partners have also raised concerns.
Way: Why didn’t you personally go to the Solomon Islands to dissuade the government from moving forward?
Paid : I have spoken and discussed at length with my colleague, Minister Manele. The Prime Minister has been in contact with Prime Minister Sogavare, in particular by correspondence. And, of course, Minister Seselja, who is our Minister for the Pacific, surrendered as soon as he could, having experienced Covid just before that.
So, we have been in very close contact with the government of the Solomon Islands, on the ultimate basis of our respect for the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands. And there were multiple engagements, including across the region.
Way: But still, you didn’t go there personally. Shadow Minister Penny Wong says despite all her tough talk, under Scott Morrison’s watch, our region has become less safe. How do you respond?
Paid : I think that’s an unfair characterization. And I don’t think he recognizes the sovereign decisions that governments, of course, make for themselves. Nor does it recognize the strength and commitment Australia has made through the Pacific Step-up. We are looking at very serious geostrategic challenges in our region. And these are realities. We deal with them throughout the region, as I mentioned before. But when it comes to our bilateral relationship with the Solomon Islands, we are by far their biggest development partner, and we are very proud to work and engage with the Solomon Islands on a range of issues. The response to Covid-19 is an example.
Way: Despite this, what does this failure say? You have just highlighted all that Australia has done. What does the failure to avoid this say about Australia’s influence in the region?
Paid : Well, at the end of the day, Sabra, and I think with respect, we have to recognize that the countries of the region will make their own sovereign decisions on a whole range of issues. And that, of course, includes the security provisions in this case. We have an existing bilateral security treaty with the Solomon Islands, which is published in the Australian Treaty Register. It is open. It’s transparent, and we think it’s an important part of the commitments we have with our partners.
We met regularly with the government of the Solomon Islands. The head of the Pacific Bureau visited in January, February and again last month. So we have very close relations. But I think it’s important when we’re looking at security, as I said, that the Pacific family is seen as best placed to respond in the first place.
Way: White House Indo-Pacific Commander Kurt Campbell continues his visit to the country later this week. He will be in Honiara. Can this agreement be cancelled?
Paid : Well, that’s up to the parties. But I’m glad to see that Mr. Campbell will be going to Honiara. And, of course, following the Quadruple Meeting of Foreign Ministers held in Melbourne in February, the Secretary of State visited Fiji as part of his visit to the region. When he was in Fiji to meet with leaders there, he announced that the United States would reopen its embassy in Honiara. This is very welcome and positive news. And I’m glad Mr. Campbell is pushing that forward.
Way: Minister, thank you for joining AM.
Paid : Thank you very much Sabra.
Way: Foreign Secretary Marise Payne.