China, Solomons & the Oz diplomatic omnishambles
07 May 2022
NOOSA – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”
An epigram usually attributed to Albert Einstein, although there’s no evidence he said it except that it is typical of the great man’s witticisms.
Last night Marise Payne met with Solomon Islands foreign minister Jeremiah Manele in Brisbane to discuss The Most Recent China Problem. Einstein would have understood.
The Most Recent China Problem was first brought to the world’s attention on 24 March when, according to The Guardian, “a copy of a draft security agreement circulating on social media” floated into view, purportedly declaring that Solomons “would allow China to base navy warships in the Pacific”.
This information was not of evidential quality and has not since been further elaborated.
However it has been loudly and persistently reacted to, especially in Australia where a national election is underway.
The reaction to those first reports grew quickly into an hysterical clamour which has been maintained for more than six weeks.
And what does hysterical clamour look like? Well, Australian Financial Review columnist Christopher Joye’s think-piece set the scene:
Note: Climate change is an existential threat, but China is massive … you get the drift.
The underlying opening par is written in undying prose: “The spectre of Chinese nuclear submarines, destroyers, fighters and bombers based in Solomon Islands, 1,750 kilometres from Australia’s mainland (and closer than New Zealand), brings the looming prospect of global conflict right to our doorstep.”
I particularly swooned at, "....and closer than New Zealand....".
All this bloviation on the basis of an unauthenticated leak of unknown provenance and mysterious motive for which no documentary proof has ever emerged.
Anyway cacophony had broken out and, on 29 March, Solomon Islands’ prime minister Manasseh Sogavare was concerned enough to issue what in the circumstances we should call a Pacifier.
Yes, he said, there was an agreement to allow Chinese police into the country to "protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects", but it was no different from existing arrangements applying to Australian, Papua New Guinean, Fijian and other police.
And Chinese ships would be able to visit “to carry out logistical replenishment and have stopover and transition” but there was “no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base”:
"I would like to make it abundantly clear that Solomon Islands' security agreement with Australia remains in place and intact," Sogavare said.
"It is clear that we need to diversify the country's relationship with other partners, and what is wrong with that?
"We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs, or have other motives in pursuing our national interests."
Sogavare also added the Solomons would not "pick sides" and dismissed Australian media reports that his country was being “pressured by China” to build a full-scale military base when it was merely offering bunkering privileges.
That wasn’t good enough for the Australian media, think tanks and Labor Party who continued to agitate and beat-up right through April, as day by day the issue began turning nasty for the Morrison government.
Now it was accused of sitting on its hands while China roamed the Pacific as a veritable Siren, luring various Pacific Islands to destruction by the sweetness of her song (and bribes).
Into this maelstrom, to give the impression that something was happening, was pushed a junior file-carrying minister, the hapless Senator Zed Seselja, who was despatched to Honiara on 12 April because it seemed foreign minister Senator Marise Payne didn’t want to go.
Seselja returned from his hours-long visit with the same assurances Sogavare had issued two weeks earlier about the role of police, bunkering ships and the Solomons' security agreement with Australia remaining in place.
Still the clamour continued. The clamour was enjoying itself too much to fade away.
A possible wedging opportunity having turned into a dead weight around his neck, prime minister Scott Morrison decided talking was a waste of time.
His reliable nose for such matters detected this was the time to double down, so he noted “a remarkable similarity” between China’s rhetoric and that of Sogavare and stated that Australia shared “the same red line that the United States has” on the Solomons, but would not be drawn on what that meant, if anything.
Around the same time defence minister Peter Dutton said Australia needed to “prepare for war” to preserve peace. He too failed to elaborate.
The full response - of this was but just a fragment - thrashed around like a washing machine spin-dryer turned up to 11.
So last Thursday, perhaps realising he’d gone too far, Morrison put on his best pastor’s voice and intoned that Solomon Islands “was part of Australia's Pacific family and the government was concerned for it.
"What we need to be conscious of is we need to be calm and composed when we deal with these issues that arise," said the man who had done more than most to keep the Solomons issue alive.
Thus it was that last night foreign minister Payne met with her Solomons counterpart Manele in Brisbane.
Afterwards, she - or a loyal staff member - issued the following statement which had the distinguishing feature of having no feature distinguishing it from Seselja’s previous statement of 12 April (parsing by KJ):
"We welcome recent statements from Prime Minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands security partner of choice….”
| Sogavare had been saying this since at least 29 March
“…. and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers"
| Sogavare had also been saying this since at least 29 March
“Australia has been consistent and clear in stating our respect for Solomon Islands’ sovereign decision-making….
| Except, of course, for agreeing there was “a remarkable similarity” between Sogavare and China’s rhetoric and initiating the notion of a “red line” that would not be crossed even as Dutton was talking about Australia needing to “prepare for war”
“…. however we have reiterated our deep concerns about the security agreement with China, including the lack of transparency”
| The Solomons had smartly pointed out that Australia also did not discuss its security arrangements, like AUKUS, with Pacific Islands countries
“We agreed that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice”
| You’d really wonder what all the fuss was about
“I again welcomed prime minister Sogavare’s assurance that Solomon Islands will not be used for a foreign military base”
| Which Sogavare had said repeatedly ad nauseam for at least six weeks
“Australia will always work constructively and respectfully with our Pacific family.”
| The sooner our politicians get rid of the condescending and superior ‘our Pacific family’, the sooner Pacific Islands leaders will believe we’re really interested in partnerships of equivalence
Thus endeth the Ministerial Statement.
While waiting for my suitcase at Broken Hill Airport after a flight from Adelaide-Mildura- Broken Hill on 6/11/2013 an Australian Caucasian gentleman approached and asked me if I was a Papua New Guinean.
After introductions he told me how easy it was for Australia to negotiate a deal to move the refugees from Christmas Island to Manus.
He said it was just a weekend job between Australia and PNG officials. A few PNG officials and politicians benefited financially from the deal.
The China-Solomons-Australia triad is already opening up an opportunity for corrupt PNG politicians to explore.
Casual conversations do not necessarily evidence make, Kindin. As for a triad, those three countries would spend whole days tripping over each other - KJ
Posted by: Kindin Ongugo | 08 May 2022 at 03:09 PM
Current trends in land subdivisions and in herding folk into tighter elevations of 'apartmentisations' is likely having effect that a markedly smaller proportion of the Australian population has much acquaintance with a backyard and certainly less in terms of its 'pristine' format, as of the 'quarter acre' portioning. But then, the art in politics seems to be meted by dragging and bragging in supposed certitudes, of matters thereby immeasurable.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 07 May 2022 at 08:09 PM
"The sooner our politicians get rid of the condescending and superior ‘our Pacific family’, the sooner Pacific Islands leaders will believe we’re really interested in partnerships of equivalence."
Yes, Keith, along with the Solomon Islands is "in Australia's back yard".
Hmm, I suspect it is also true that the Australian family (arrogant uncle and all) is in the Pacific's backyard.
Posted by: Stephen Charteris | 07 May 2022 at 03:22 PM