A senior Australian minister on Wednesday suggested that China had deliberately announced its security pact with the Solomon Islands during an election campaign to undermine her government’s chances of reelection.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews’ accusation is consistent with her conservative Liberal Party’s argument that Beijing wants the center-left Labor Party to win the May 21 election because Labor lawmakers were less likely to stand up to Chinese economic coercion.
Labor has described the government’s inability to prevent the deal announced by the Chinese and Solomons governments last week as Australia’s biggest foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.
With the security deal sparking attacks on the government’s national security record, Andrews said China was watching the outcome of the election carefully, given differences between the government and opposition over the relationship.
“Beijing is very clearly aware that we’re in a federal election campaign here at the moment and now we have a significant focus on what is happening in the Pacific Islands, what China is doing,” she told Brisbane radio station 4BC on Wednesday.
“Now, why now? Why in the middle of a federal election campaign is all this coming to light? I mean, we talk about political interference and that has many forms, so I think we need to be very much aware of what Beijing is doing, what its plans are, what it’s trying to achieve in the actions its taking in the Solomons, but not exclusively in the Solomons.”
The comments were quickly criticised by Labor. Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O'Connor said the statement showed Andrews is out of her depth, saying her claims were "conspiratorial fantasy".
"Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews is so out of depth in her security portfolio she's embarking on flights of conspiratorial fantasy," he wrote on Twitter.
"The Government won't accept they have presided over one of the worst policy failures in the Pacific since World War II."
Australian officials fear the agreement could allow China to establish a military presence in the Pacific Island country down the track, and the news that it had been signed sent shock waves through the federal election campaign last week.
Labor has used the revelation to try and undermine the Coalition's national security credentials and accused the government of a catastrophic foreign policy blunder, while some senior ministers have hinted that China may have used bribery to secure the pact.
Australia angered China in 2018 by passing national security laws that ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said at the time the government was prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry attacked Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s warning this week that Australians must prepare for war because of the threat from China and global insecurity spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Certain Australian politicians often seek selfish political gains by making wild remarks to smear China and clamor for war,” Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said the United States had a fundamental concern with the lack of transparency in Chinese activities in the Pacific islands.
“Only a handful of people in a very small circle” in the Solomons had seen the detail of the Chinese pact, Kritenbrink said Tuesday.
Labor on Tuesday announced a range of measures that it would implement in government to increase Australia’s engagement in the Pacific.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that by blaming the government, Labor was siding with China in the dispute over the Solomons pact that has raised fears of a Chinese naval presence less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the northeast Australian coast.
“They are playing politics with the Pacific and the only ones who are benefitting from Labor’s attacks on the government is the Chinese government,” Morrison said Tuesday.
(with inputs from AP)