Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC RN

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Solomon Islands' security pact with China.
20 April 2022

Sabra Lane: The Federal Government has declared it's deeply disappointed that Solomon Islands has pressed ahead and signed a security pact with China, despite a concerted diplomatic campaign by Australia and the US. It's feared it will pave the way for a Chinese military presence in a country that's less than 2,000 kilometres off Australia's east coast. The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne.

Minister, you say this deal has the potential to undermine security in the region. How?

Marise Payne: We firmly believe that the Pacific family is best placed to meet the security needs of our region, and we've consistently said that. And, more importantly, we've consistently demonstrated that, whether it's through the very significant exercise of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands – the RAMSI – which, of course, Australia engaged in over a number of years, or even more recently our response to the unrest in the Solomon Islands with our partners in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and Fiji at the end of last year. Bringing the Pacific to address Pacific problems is a proven solution and one which we strongly support continuing as the priority and primary solution.

Lane: Still, how will this agreement erode or undermine security in the region?

Payne: Well, I think here in this – in relation to this agreement we see a lack of transparency. This has not been agreed in an open and transparent way, not been consulted, for example, across the region. I mean, ultimately this is a sovereign decision of the government of Solomon Islands, and we absolutely recognise that. But through the work of the Pacific Island Forum over many years, whether it's the Biketawa Declaration or the more recent Boe Declaration from the Pacific Island Forum meeting in Nauru, these declarations and these engagements on security issues have been dealt with in a Pacific-wide manner. And that is the traditional approach for these issues. And it's why some Pacific partners have also raised concerns.

Lane: Why didn't you personally go to the Solomon Islands to dissuade the government from going ahead?

Payne: I spoke at length and engaged at length with my colleague, Minister Manele. The Prime Minister has been in contact with Prime Minister Sogavare, including through correspondence. And, of course, Minister Seselja, who is our Minister for the Pacific, visited as soon as he was able to, having experienced Covid just before that.

So, we have been in very close contact with the government of the Solomon Islands ultimately based on our respect for the sovereignty of Solomon Islands. And there have been multiple engagements, including across the region.

Lane: But still, you didn't go personally. The Shadow Minister Penny Wong says despite all of his tough talk, on Scott Morrison's watch our region has become less secure. How do you respond?

Payne: I think that's an unfair characterisation. And I don't think it recognises the sovereign decisions that governments, of course, make for themselves. And it also doesn't recognise the strength and the engagement that Australia has made through the Pacific Step-up. We are looking at very serious geostrategic challenges in our region. And they are realities. We deal with them across the region broadly, as I've already mentioned. But in terms of our bilateral relationship with the Solomon Islands, we are by far their largest development partner, and we're very proud to work and engage with the Solomon Islands on a range of issues. The Covid-19 response is one example.

Lane: Despite that though, what does this failure then say? You've just pointed out everything that Australia's done. What does the failure to head this off say about Australia's influence in the region?

Payne: Well, ultimately, Sabra, and I think respectfully, we must acknowledge that countries across the region will make their own sovereign decisions in relation to a whole range of issues. And that, of course, includes security arrangements in this case. We have an existing bilateral security treaty with the Solomon Islands, one which is published on Australia's Treaties Register. It is open. It is transparent, and we think that is an important part of the engagements that we have with our partners.

We have met regularly with the government of the Solomon Islands. The head of the Office of the Pacific has visited in January, February and again last month. So, we have very close relationships. But I do think it is important when we are looking at security, as I said, that the Pacific family should be seen as best placed to respond in the first instance.

Lane: The White House Indo-Pacific Commander Kurt Campbell is pressing ahead with his visit to the country later this week. He'll be in Honiara. Can this deal be undone?

Payne: Well, that's a matter for the parties. But I am pleased to see that Mr Campbell will be visiting Honiara. And, of course, following the Quad meeting of Foreign Ministers held in Melbourne in February, the Secretary of State went to Fiji as part of his visit to the region. When he was in Fiji meeting with leaders there, he announced that the United States would be reopening their embassy in Honiara. That's a very welcome and positive news. And I am glad that Mr Campbell is going to advance that.

Lane: Minister, thanks for joining AM.

Payne: Thanks very much, Sabra.

Lane: The Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

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