CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A Chinese ambassador says China’s engagement with South Pacific island countries poses no threat to Australia, responding to fears that Beijing will establish a military foothold in the Solomon Islands.
China’s envoy to Australia, Xiao Qian, attempted to reassure his host nation in a newspaper opinion piece published Thursday as reports emerged of a planned trip by a high-level Chinese delegation to the Solomons following the completion of a bilateral security pact.
“The cooperation between China and the South Pacific island countries is conducive to people’s well-being on both sides, and regional prosperity and stability, and will by no means threaten Australia’s security,” Xiao wrote in The Australian Financial Review.
“China’s rise should not be seen as a threat to Australia,” Xiao wrote. He made no specific mention of the Solomon Islands or the security pact.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative government is seeking a fourth three-year term in elections next week, said he disagreed with the ambassador that “Chinese government interference in the Pacific is of no consequence.”
“I think it’s of great consequence,” Morrison told reporters.
“I support the Australian national interests, not the Chinese government’s view of what national interests are, whether they be in Australia or across the Pacific, and that’s why I’ve always taken a very strong stance upon this,” Morrison added.
Australia and its allies including the United States fear the China-Solomons pact will result in a Chinese naval base being established less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the northeast Australian coast.
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has maintained that there will be no Chinese military base in his country and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the islands.
Asked if China’s rise should be seen as a threat to Australia, opposition leader Anthony Albanese told reporters: “China has changed its posture. They are more aggressive in the region.”
“We need to, in the words of the (President Joe) Biden administration, have competition without catastrophe,” Albanese said.
Solomons opposition lawmaker and chair of the parliamentary foreign relations committee, Peter Kenilorea, told The Associated Press he had heard Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi would visit the capital, Honiara, on the weekend that Australians vote on Saturday, May 21.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had no information to release about the trip, and Sogavare’s office did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment on Wang’s visit.
Some senior Australian government lawmakers have suggested Beijing had timed the announcement of the Solomons pact during an election campaign to undermine the ruling coalition’s chances of retaining power in the poll.
“It’s obviously provocative, particularly during the course of an election campaign, that China has made that decision and I think we again need to be eyes wide open about what is happening in our region,” Defense Minister Peter Dutton said Wednesday.
The center-left Labor Party opposition has described the China-Solomons pact as Australia’s worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since World War II.
Government lawmakers argue Beijing wants a change of government because Labor lawmakers would be less likely to stand up to Chinese coercion.
In a speech on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce accused China of following the same strategic course as Japan had done when it began building an airfield on the Solomons during World War II.
The airfield would have enabled Japanese bombers to threaten shipping between the Unites States and Australia. The airfield was the target of the Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major U.S. land offensive against Japanese forces.
“It is quite obvious through their desire to have military bases that they are starting a process of encircling Australia and that there is a wish, at the very least, to intimidate, or worse, to supplicate Australia,” Joyce said.
Australia has a security pact with the Solomon Islands and sent a peacekeeping police force to Honiara in November after civil unrest.