National Security

Labor's each-way bet on China's presence in the Pacific

April 22, 2022

SUBJECTS: Solomon Islands security pact with China, Richard Marles' flip flop on China's presence in the Pacific

LAURA JAYES: Now joining me live is Liberal Senator James Paterson. James, good to see you. Can you give us a straight answer? How did this happen under the government's nose, on your watch?

SENATOR JAMES PATERSON: Laura, the Chinese government doesn't play by the same rules that the Australian Government plays by. We are bound by the rule of law. We are a liberal democracy. We respect conventions of international relations, and we deal with our partners in the Pacific transparently and openly. The Chinese government doesn't do that and the Chinese government is willing to do things which we are not willing to do and we should never do. And that does make it sometimes more difficult to deal with them and sometimes there will be things like this that will happen.

JAYES: Like what?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, Laura, I'm obviously limited in what I can say in public. I think people understand what I mean when I say the Chinese government is willing to do things in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world, that the Australian government, bound by the rule of law and conventions of international relations would not engage in.

JAYES: So is this down to money?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, we are very transparent and we're very open in how we deal with our partners, we don't do anything underhand, we don't do anything in secret, we deal with them openly and honestly and on the merits. And the Chinese government has a track record all around the world, not just in the Pacific, are behaving very differently.

JAYES: So you weren't willing to outspend China, basically?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, I don't think it's a question of that. We are the Solomon Islands most significant foreign aid partner by a long, long way. And it is one of our biggest destinations of foreign aid and other forms of assistance, including security assistance. We have been their partner of choice for many years, going back to the RAMSI intervention to ensure security and stability. We've been a very generous and significant donor of COVID vaccines as well, and that is consistent across the Pacific and has been for many years since this government made a decision to step up and to really refocus our international aid program to the Pacific, which is our neighbourhood and who are our family and friends.

JAYES: So if it's not money over the table, is it money under the table that you're talking about?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, there certainly have been public media reports elsewhere in the world, Laura, of China being willing to pay bribes to public officials, to politicians. I can't confirm whether that happened in the Pacific or in the Solomon Islands, but that is tactics that they have been credibly publicly accused of in the past.

JAYES: But the problem is that you've got this fertile ground that China was able to cosy up to the Solomon Islands. Your government has been in power for almost a decade. How do you allow this relationship to happen under your watch? I mean, there's a bit of complacency on our side, isn't there?

SENATOR PATERSON: No, I don't agree, Laura. And the reality is the Solomon Islands is a sovereign country. They have a right to self-determination and to make their own decisions in their national interest. Australia is not Russia. We don't impose our will on our neighbours and we can't force them to do things that they don't want to do. All we can do is calmly, clearly explain to them what we think the consequences are of their decision. And in this instance, I think our concerns are widely shared not just in the Pacific, but around the world. And I hope the Solomon Islands government really carefully considers the implications of this in their own interests for their own sovereignty. But we're not going to talk down to them, we're not going to lecture them, and we're not going to tell them what they can and can't do in their own national interest. We are actually consistent. When we say we believe in self-determination, of the sovereignty of states. We actually mean that. The Chinese government can't say the same, but we do.

JAYES: It sounds like you are on exactly the same page as Richard Marles?

SENATOR PATERSON: I wish that was true, Laura. But Richard Marles says one thing when he is in China and a different thing when he's in Australia. In China, he says he welcomes the Chinese government's involvement in the Pacific. In a speech which curiously was never available on his website, but which your viewers can read on my website if you're interested...

JAYES: Isn't it clever diplomacy, perhaps?

SENATOR PATERSON:... But when he's in Australia he says it's a failure of the Australian government if they are allowed to participate in the Pacific. So he's got to explain that contradiction.

JAYES: Ok, so he said the Solomon Islands have the right to deal with anyone. Australia shouldn't expect the Solomon Islands to deal with us exclusively. Do you disagree with both of those statements?

SENATOR PATERSON: No, but I do disagree with him when he said that fears about Chinese military bases in the Pacific were overblown and shouldn't be taken seriously. They've always been a very real risk and he should know better given his background in the Pacific. But clearly he does not. And I disagree with him when he says that it's in our interests and it's a good thing to have China involved in the Pacific. The reality is, we are engaged in a zero sum game for influence in the Pacific. It is a contest and inviting them in and telling them they should do more in the Pacific is not consistent with that, and he has to explain that contradiction.

JAYES: Ok. The Prime Minister says it's chilling and concerning that he's made these comments. Isn't it chilling and concerning that this has actually happened? And can you reverse it?

SENATOR PATERSON: It is very concerning, there's no question about that Laura, and the government's been very honest and transparent about that. Anyone who understands the history of the war in the Pacific in World War Two will understand why it is strategically important and that's why it's so alarming that Richard Marles got this wrong. We're going to continue to respectfully engage with the government of the Solomon Islands and all governments in the Pacific, and we're going to take Prime Minister Sogavare at his word and encourage him to live up to the commitments he's made, not just to us, but to the people of the Solomon Islands, that there will never be a Chinese military base on the sovereign territory of the Solomons.

JAYES: In the middle of an election campaign, it seems that despite the war of words, that you and Labor are as one.

SENATOR PATERSON: I wish that was true, Laura, but I think the evidence suggests otherwise, I think Richard Marles has been very clear in both his pamphlet, which he published last year, and in a speech in Beijing, although I know he's not proud of it and doesn't want to talk about it...

JAYES:... but they're just words, we're talking about actions.

SENATOR PATERSON: I think words are pretty important, Laura. Words are incredibly important, particularly if you're

JAYES: Well they haven't got your government anywhere.

SENATOR PATERSON: ... Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Well, I think there are obviously limits to what we can assert in the Pacific. We don't pretend that we can control the outcomes of sovereign governments. They do have to make decisions in our own interest. All we can do is explain to them and work with them, and we do remain the security partner of choice for many governments in the Pacific. The Solomons included, when they had disturbances in recent months it was Australia that they called and asked to come to their aid and we quickly sent the AFP and other services to assist them to get on top of that, and we will continue to do that whenever we're asked.

JAYES: James Paterson, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.


Recent News

All Posts