Leaders should hang their heads in shame over Solomons-China deal

In a few days, Australia’s leaders will stand solemnly, heads bowed, to honour the nation’s war dead on Anzac Day. They should hang their heads in shame.

Australians fought and died to prevent a hostile power from establishing a base in Solomon Islands in World War II.

China’s deal with the Solomons comes just days before Anzac Day is marked in Australia.

Now we discover that a hostile power has established a political foundation for military patrolling and a potential base in Solomon Islands.

China has stolen a march on Australia, a 4000-kilometre advance from its nearest existing military base, without firing a shot. Merely by signing an agreement with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

“The fact that China was first to announce the agreement confirms this is indeed a historic day in the neocolonisation of the Pacific,” says the head of the ANU National Security College, Rory Medcalf.

“The principle failure here is one of high-level statecraft. It begs the question, if we can’t shape an outcome in a nearby small country where we’ve provided stability for decades, where can we?”

‘It is widely seen, including by our allies, as a failure of Australian foreign policy.’

Australia immediately is on the defensive. The advent of a potential Chinese military base destabilises Australia’s near northern approaches. The nation has now lost the ability to fight wars abroad.

Resources will be concentrated around the continent itself; new Australian bases in the Pacific will be under consideration by whomever forms government after May 21.

The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who negotiated successfully with Sogavare and other Pacific leaders to counter Beijing’s efforts at influence, described the agreement as very disappointing.

“It is widely seen, including by our allies, as a failure of Australian foreign policy.”

Indeed, in a profound statement of no confidence in the Morrison government, a high-level US delegation led by the White House’s top Indo-Pacific official, Kurt Campbell, is en route to the Pacific to try to protect US interests and shore up regional solidarity.

The Solomons’ group of some 900 islands, Guadalcanal the biggest among them, sits astride Australia’s oceanic lifelines to the US.

That’s why the Japanese Imperial Forces wanted the islands in the 1940s, why the US and Australia and other allies fought major battles to eject them, and why the Chinese Communist Party wants them today.

The military historian Peter Dean points out that the South Pacific “has always been our number one focus and area, all the way back to the 1800s”.

He acknowledges Scott Morrison’s defence – that Solomons is a sovereign nation that makes its own decisions – “but the question is, did we use all resources available? It doesn’t look like it.”

Morrison was challenged by a reporter on Wednesday: “On the very day that Zed Seselja [Minister for the Pacific, a junior minister] was travelling to the Solomon Islands, Marise Payne was hosting a private fundraiser,” said Sky News’ Andrew Clennell. “Is that really the best use of the foreign minister at that time as opposed to going to the Solomons? ”

Morrison failed to address the question. Dean, director of the Defence and Security Institute at the University of Western Australia, described the Solomons agreement as a “disruptor”.

“It gives China the ability to shape the region on their terms. The aim of our strategy is to shape it on our terms – this agreement certainly doesn’t do that.”

HMAS Canberra before leaving Sydney for manoeuvers in 1942.Credit:The Age Archives

Labor’s Penny Wong described it as “the greatest failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific in 70 years”.

Harsh? No. It’s merely a statement of the consensus among experts in the field.

For Japan, its campaign to take Papua New Guinea in World War II was an integral part of its campaign to take the island of Guadalcanal as well.

Some 2000 Australians died fighting the Japanese in PNG. And when the Japanese attacked HMAS Canberra in the Battle for Guadalcanal, 84 Australians died. HMAS Canberra remains the biggest Australian warship lost in battle.

Today, Canberra has been sunk once again, this time without a fight.

Lest we forget.

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