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29 May 2019

With Jonathan Pearlman

Scott of the Pacific

On Sunday, Scott Morrison will make his first overseas trip since the election – to the Solomon Islands, a nation of 600,000 people that has not been visited by an Australian prime minister since Kevin Rudd went there in early 2008. Back then, Rudd was seeking to fulfil a campaign promise to rekindle regional ties, after attacking John Howard for damaging relations with Australia’s neighbours. But Morrison’s trip is different. He is not pursuing domestic political interests and, unlike Rudd, has no personal background in Australian foreign affairs. Instead, despite his claims otherwise, he is heading to Honiara because the government is deeply concerned about the looming prospect of this sprawling island nation – still scattered with airfields and ports from World War II – aligning with China.

Last month, Manasseh Sogavare, the newly elected prime minister of the Solomon Islands, revealed that he would consider switching the country’s diplomatic stance from recognition of Taiwan to China. The sovereign state archipelago has had diplomatic ties with Taiwan since 1983, and receives considerable aid and investment as part of this relationship. But these ties, Sogavare told the nation’s public broadcaster, were “not hard and fast and fixed”. In 2014, during a previous term as prime minister, Sogavare hinted at switching allegiances – and it is possible he is suggesting so again now to try to increase Taiwan’s generosity. 

But Morrison is not taking any chances.

China has gradually been convincing countries to end their association with Taiwan, which now has less than twenty global allies, including six in the Pacific. The biggest of these is the Solomon Islands, which has growing ties with Beijing. The island nation is also believed to be the first of Australia’s Pacific neighbours that has China as its largest trading partner. According to the World Bank, its trade with China was worth $US398 million in 2017, about four times the value of that with Australia. In 2016, the Solomon Islands signed a deal with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to lay an undersea cable to Australia and Papua New Guinea. This raised security concerns in Canberra, prompting Malcolm Turnbull to take over the project. Last August, in one of his last acts as prime minister, Turnbull hosted Sogavare in Canberra and they signed a new security deal.

Morrison has continued this so-called Pacific “step-up”. Despite a looming election, he visited Fiji and Vanuatu in January, becoming the first Australian prime minister to do so outside international summits. This followed concerns about China’s growing influence across the Pacific, although Morrison insists that the renewed focus on the region – including additional aid – is not a response to China’s growing influence, but simply about improving bonds with Australia’s “Pacific family”.

Last week, a senior US State Department official, Patrick Murphy, visited Canberra and warned of China’s efforts to persuade Pacific states to switch their allegiance from Taiwan. The prospect of a Chinese base in the South Pacific, Murphy cautioned on Friday, was “quite troubling”. Three days later, Morrison announced that he was heading to Honiara.

So far, the newly returned prime minister’s attempt to reach out to Pacific states has been well-received. His challenge now is to tailor new projects – health care support, Australian entry visas, combating climate change, for example – to their needs, rather than aiming primarily to counter Chinese influence. In the coming years, Australia will not be able to match Chinese aid or trade volumes. To maintain close ties with its island neighbours, it will need to adopt a different diplomatic approach and treat these states as genuine partners. Sogavare has made three visits to Australia in the past three years. Morrison’s visit is long overdue, if not too late.


Getting the Australia–China relationship right

“[The international market system] is under threat from the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ trade and decoupling strategies . . . The new Australian government now has an opportunity to propose to China’s leaders a high-level dialogue on shared interests.” Peter Drysdale, East Asia Forum

What a new Russian ambassador might mean for relations with Australia

“Canberra is utterly bewildered by the false dichotomy of picking between our major economic partner – China – and ally – the US. The solution is obvious.  Maintain our relationships with both and meanwhile craft an independent foreign policy which preserves Australian interests. Of course, the immediate first step for policymakers is to articulate just what exactly our interests are.” Elizabeth Buchanan, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

North Korea places its hope in science and technology

“While North Korea has relied on imports for hardware, it uses self-developed software for computers and mobile devices. Tablet PCs produced by North Korea, for instance, are equipped with their own software after importing substrates from China.” Tae-jun Kang, The Diplomat


Australian pilots hit with lasers during Indo-Pacific exercise

“Australia’s navy has gamely demonstrated its willingness to remain present in the SCS, operating in several locations at once. China has equally underlined that it can detect foreign warships and has the capacity to deploy screening forces across the SCS. That’s a sobering development.” Euan Graham, The Strategist

China wages relentless crackdowns on its Muslims. But Saudi Arabia stays quiet as it bolsters ties with Beijing

“Saudi Arabia is hardly alone in downplaying the plight of the Uighurs. Other large Muslim-majority states – including Pakistan, Iran and Egypt – have also been conspicuously quiet.” Anna Fifield & Kareem Fahim, The Washington Post

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

The rookie PMs – how Canberra’s leadership circus is damaging ties with Asia

“It has become the habit of every prime minister since Howard to view Asia through the wrong end of the telescope, placing domestic concerns above all else and assuming that our neighbours will forgive our insensitivity when we ask them to play along.” George Megalogenis, HERE



They are . . . extremely regrettable.

Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister (Japan)

This type of act . . . can jeopardise efforts to promote dialogue.

Moon Jae-in, President (South Korea)

North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.

Donald Trump, President (United States)

Sources: Bloomberg, The New York Times, Twitter

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