NOOSA – In Australia the issue was characterised incorrectly by the media as an ‘agreement to allow Chinese armed forces to protect Solomons infrastructure, less than 2,000 kilometres off Australia’s east coast’.
This was a significant overstatement. Under most definitions, the role of police is hardly considered to be ‘armed forces protecting infrastructure’.
But, you know, journalisms.
Framing designed to alarm. Initially also, I suspect, the issue was meant to work for Morrison and Dutton. It may have even been leaked to work for Morrison and Dutton.
But it didn’t. Instead of the Australian people clutching their beads and sighing ‘my heroes, thanks for bold’, the electorate put on its kicking boots and yelled, ‘what you been doing all these years eejits!’
The issue suddenly rebounded to a motif of goose-stepping Chinese given an easy slither into the Solomons courtesy of us.
Never mind that the aid deal Solomons and China agreed was mainly about matters other than police, as PNG Attitude reported on 11 February. Yes, even we knew.
After all the panic Down Under, the high-powered US delegation led by Messrs Campbell and Kritenbrink found it necessary to meet with prime minister Manasseh Sogavare and his government for just 90 minutes.
This seemed to indicate that Australia’s hysteria was not really shared by the Americans, who on a flying visit also met with PNG’s James Marape and Fiji’s Josaia Voreqe (call me Frank) Bainimarama.
With the mysterious ‘leak’ triggering a largely supine media into unexpected uproar, Morrison and his foreign minister, whose name I’ve momentarily forgotten, tried to spin their way through incoming Exocets – each one a variation on why the government hadn’t done more to head off the China-Solomons deal.
Morrison refused to hold a press conference and disappeared for two days (weekend truce), leaving the media to their own hyperbolic devices and defence minister Dutton to make the obligatory ‘we need plenty missiles’ bid.
As for the Americans, they offered a virtual shrug of the shoulders, issued a cursory ‘not much to see here, tighten things up’ and moved on to more serious dilemmas like working out what India and Indonesia are really up to these days and whether Pakistan has nuclear weapons or is just pretending.
With the weekend over, as emotions began to settle we saw some of the giants of Australian resilience and bravado slide out of the shadows.
First was Morrison himself warning against China stepping across an imaginary red line or he’d, he’d…. ask the Americans what to do.
Dutton was still trying to start World War III, meaning he must be left alone, so it was up to home affairs minister Andrews to accuse China of timing the Solomons deal specifically to damage the government’s re-election chances.
“Political interference from Beijing,” bloviated the minister. Ms Andrews is well known to be an evidence free zone.
“If Karen Andrews has such intelligence, Labor should be briefed,” home affairs shadow, Kristina Keneally, retaliated on Twitter. Wrong. Ms Andrews had no intelligence.
Cold on the heels of Morrison appeared a man the media billed as ‘Australia’s top spy’, Andrew Shearer. Drew popped out to propose he’d be a bit concerned about ‘unity of command’ if Australian and Chinese forces had to operate side by side in the Solomons.
This ground level collaboration between pretty goose-steppers and dirty diggers not only seemed highly improbable, it also sounded like a better outcome than those same Chinese forces blinding our boys and girls with their shining uniforms before pounding them to an empty husk.
Shearer further distinguished himself by revealing that the China -Solomons deal “wasn’t an intelligence failure”. In fact “this strategy has been unfolding for a number of years,” he recalled.
Let us for one moment accept this at face value. No let’s not. For this would mean that Shearer et al knew, spoke, were ignored and did nothing in the intervening period except perhaps punching the air at Hillsong on Sundays.
The next bunny out of a hutch was Peter Jennings, boss of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which is largely funded by US arms manufacturers and (temporarily one would hope) by the US and Australian governments.
Jennings – described by what used to be the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘a strategic analyst with decades of experience’ - and his outfit of right wingers are usually up for a bit of a barney with the Chinese, especially if it makes Dutton shout about purchasing more missiles, fighter jets or submarines from not the bloody French.
But Jennings’ first reaction to the Solomons imbroglio was one of deep despair brought on by the “rapid deterioration of our strategic outlook - strategist speak for we are in really deep doo-doo,” he told journalist Niki Savva, in what was apparently a strategic analyst’s in-joke.
It seems Jennings’ inside run on being well-informed didn’t extend to China and the Solomons. Bit of an oversight that.
Which might have something to do with Jennings’ lack of admiration for “our Pacific family” (copyright, every Australian politician).
As Savva writes, “he is hugely dismissive of Morrison’s reliance on the supposed great friendship we share with our Pacific ‘family’ [Savvas mock quotes]”.
She let Jennings continue digging. “We have known for a very long time that Sogavare did not have our interests at heart. Our softly, softly approach led him to believe he could get away with anything.”
What a tougher stand might have looked like, Jennings did not say. Perhaps it would have involved Peter Dutton and a media release of some kind.
I feel I’ve earned it.
On the way back to my office, carefully clutching the precious liquid in one hand and a Scotch Finger in the other, I had a compelling thought.
“Well, if ASPI’s known all this ‘for a very long time’, I suppose I’ll be able to find references on loins to their acute analysis and beyond the horizon strategic thinking.”
So I typed ‘ASPI + SOLOMONS + CHINA’.
Waste. Of. Time.
“Whether through complacency, neglect or ineptitude, the long promised khaki election is in danger of turning into a revamped Dad’s Army,” wrote Savva.
The accompanying cartoon, 'Dad's Army', made a day that otherwise, for me, was going to the dogs.
Oh, I almost forgot. Jennings also wanted the government to enact emergency procurement measures to buy missiles and other munitions.
He finished the interview by lashing about to find culprits more useless than ASPI: Dutton frustrated by bureaucratic intransigence; Morrison too relaxed; Foreign Affairs a ‘resigned air of helplessness’; and Chronology. As in by the time news broke of the China-Solomons deal, it was already too late.
As for the prime minister, having come out from the shadows, he went as far away from China as he could get (Tasmania) from where he shouted that China had “form on foreign interference in Australia.
“We’re very aware of the influence the Chinese government seems to have in this country,” he reminisced.
Meanwhile China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, complained that the speculation China will build a military base in Solomons was “pure disinformation, fabricated by a handful of people who harbour ulterior motives”.
Also noteworthy was journalist Anthony Galloway’s revisionist cartography expressed as “the US wanted to expand security cooperation with PNG, which sits between Solomons and Australia”.
And some late news: it seems foreign minister Payne was not sent to the Solomons because of “advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs to further avoid antagonising Sogavare”. I can understand his feelings.
While putting this piece together I was sent an article written by Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a Solomon Islander who is director of Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi and clearly detests Sogavare almost as much as Scott Morrison.
Kabutaulaka wrote that a recent “tantrum in parliament with rants against Australia” by Sogavare provided insights into “the government’s mindset, the triggers for the security agreement with China and (the) government’s ungratefulness for the assistance that Australia has long and continues to give Solomon Islands”.
But, as Kabutaulaka conceded, I presume reluctantly, “I don’t have time and space to dwell in detail with the three points identified.”
However, he did have time to embark on a long rant about the Solomons government and its “childish ranting” before embarking on another rant about Sogavare.
Kabutaulaka does see that “China is a new and valuable development partner” but [rant warning] “the current Solomon Islands government is so drunk in ‘love’ in its honeymoon with China that it refuses any rational evaluation of the relationship. The SIG has drunk the Beijing kool-aid”.
In the interests of mutual alliances, I think ASPI could do with some of that Kabutaulaka cool insight, if he ever finds the time to provide it.