The Coalition has conceded China does appear to be aiming to establish a military base in Solomon Islands, a change of tack from former prime minister Scott Morrison’s insistence no such thing would happen.
But acting Prime Minister Richard Marles, who is also defence minister, is hopeful Australia’s relationship with China is on track to improve after his meeting last month with China State Councillor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe.
Defence Minister Richard Marles and opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie. Credit:James Brickwood
On Sunday, Marles said the meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was longer and more interactive than he expected despite having “traversed pretty difficult ground”.
He said the discussions started and ended with a desire from both sides “to get the relationship to a better place”.
“I hope that it opens the door to a change of tone in our relationship,” Marles told Sky News.
“We’re not going to be about the chest-beating that we saw from our former government. We’re about engaging with the world in a more professional, diplomatic, sober way.”
Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie said the world had seen “continuity, not change” from Marles and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in their approach to China.
“When you’ve got the Chinese newspapers online condemning Mr Albanese for being no different from his predecessor, Mr Morrison, he’s obviously continuing on with our policy,” he told Sky News.
Hastie pointed to rapid changes in the Indo-Pacific region as China increased its military capacity and sought more influence in the region.
The Solomon Islands government signed a security pact with China during Australia’s election campaign, leading to questions about Morrison’s engagement with Pacific leaders.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has since assured Foreign Minister Penny Wong China would not have a persistent military presence in his nation.
But Hastie said it appeared China wanted one.
“China is rapidly militarising; by 2030 they’ll have more than 450 battleships,” he said.
“We’re seeing military bases in Djibouti, Cambodia, and I reckon they’re going pretty hard for one in Solomon Islands.”
Nevertheless, he applauded NATO’s opposition to China’s expansionist behaviour and the G7’s commitment to countering the Chinese Belt and Road initiative with more investment and said Albanese’s entry on the world stage had been positive.
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