Australia’s foreign minister has met her Solomon Islands counterpart for the first time since the South Pacific island nation signed a security pact with China.
Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne yesterday said she met Solomon Islands Development Planning and Aid Coordination Minister Jeremiah Manele in the Australian east coast city of Brisbane as he transited through the airport on Friday night.
“Australia has been consistent and clear in stating our respect for Solomon Islands’ sovereign decisionmaking, however we have reiterated our deep concerns about the security agreement with China, including the lack of transparency,” Payne’s office said in a statement.
Payne’s office said the pair agreed that Australia remained the Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice and that the Solomon Islands would not host a foreign military base less than 2,000km off Australia’s northeast coast.
Manele could not be contacted for comment yesterday.
Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan told Australian Broadcasting Corp that the two ministers had a “very productive conversation.”
A Chinese base in the Solomon Islands was not in the interests of the region, Tehan said.
“What we want to do is to be making sure that we’re presenting a very strong case as to why it is incredibly important that we don’t see militarization of the Pacific islands,” Tehan said.
Tehan said Payne and Manele also discussed how Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government needed to keep working on the bilateral relationship.
Morrison’s coalition is seeking a rare fourth three-year term in elections on May 25.
The China-Solomon Islands security pact announced last month has become a major focus of the election campaign.
After details of a draft pact were released, Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja flew to the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara, on April 12 to unsuccessfully ask the government to abandon it.
The opposition Labor Party said at the time that Payne, a more senior minister than Seselja, should have been sent instead.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese welcomed Payne’s meeting with Manele.
“It’s about time,” Albanese said.
Albanese has also criticized Morrison for not telephoning Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare since the pact was signed.
Morrison has said he was following the advice of intelligence officials.
The Labor Party has condemned the pact as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II. Albanese has promised closer engagement between Australia and its South Pacific island neighbors if Labor wins government.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has suggested that Beijing timed the pact’s announcement during an election campaign to undermine her Liberal Party’s prospects for re-election.
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