With eye on election, Australia Opposition vows to step up military cooperation with Pacific countries

Labor has criticized Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government over a security pact announced last week between China and the Solomon Islands

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Tuesday, April 26, 2022, 01:00 PM IST
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Australian shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong speaks to media in Darwin, Australia, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022 | AP

Australia’s opposition party promised Tuesday to establish a Pacific defense school to train neighboring armies in response to China’s potential military presence on the Solomon Islands.

The school was among a range of measures that the center-left Labor Party has promised to increase Australia’s engagement in its region if the opposition wins elections on May 21.

Labor has criticized Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government over a security pact announced last week between China and the Solomon Islands.

Australia and the United States fear the deal could result in a Chinese naval presence less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the northeast Australian coast.

There are also concerns that other Pacific island countries financially weakened by the pandemic and its impact on tourism could be lured by China into similar deals.

The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, who outlined the Labor plan alongside senior frontbench colleagues in Darwin on Tuesday, accused Morrison of dropping the ball in the Pacific.

“The vacuum Scott Morrison has created is being filled by others who do not share our interests and values,” Wong said in a clear reference to China.

Labor’s seven-part plan includes a $525m increase to Australia’s Official Development Assistance for Pacific countries and Timor-Leste over the next four years.

The party argued this funding would “help address the decade’s worth of development gains that have been lost due to the pandemic”.

It would include $5m for a national critical care and trauma response centre “to strengthen regional health preparedness in the Pacific and Timor-Leste”.

Wong has yet to announce planned aid levels for countries outside the Pacific. She told reporters in Darwin that as foreign minister she “would like to have more development assistance” but it was also important to be “fiscally responsible”.

The election promise is Labor's response to what they describe as the Liberal-National coalition "dropping the ball" in the Pacific after a security pact was signed between the Solomon Islands and China.

Security experts fear the deal could lead to a Chinese military base, although both nations have denied this, with a Beijing spokesman saying overnight such speculation was "fake news".

Meanwhile, two opinion polls show Labor holding an election-winning lead over the coalition with less than four weeks to polling day.

The latest Ipsos poll shows Labor leading in primary vote terms by 34 points to the coalition's 32.

On a two-party preferred basis, 50 per cent would vote Labor and 42 per cent the coalition, while eight per cent of respondents were undecided.

Morrison moved ahead of Mr Albanese as preferred prime minister 46-37 per cent in the latest Newspoll.

Labor leads the coalition 53-47 on a two-party preferred basis, enough to secure majority government.

Morrison dismissed Labor’s new policy as “farcical” on Tuesday morning, while Foreign Minister Marise Payne said much of the policy announced so far was already being undertaken by the government. Morrison has maintained the Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation which is entitled to make its own diplomatic decisions.

“We’ve been very focused on our investment in the Pacific to keep Australians safe. And what we’ve done around the world has been acknowledged,” Morrison said on 2GB Radio on Tuesday morning.

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