Fears of Xi naval base plot as tensions between China and Australia skyrocket
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Wang Yi is expected to visit with a large delegation as part of a broader visit to a number of Pacific Island countries, an Australian government source told ABC news. The trip, which could come as soon as this week, has raised fresh fears about China’s plan for the region after Beijing signed a contention security pact with the Solomon Islands government last month.
A draft of the pact sent shock waves around the Indo-Pacific region when it was revealed in March.
The agreement between Beijing and the Solomons government would be China’s first known bilateral security agreement in the Pacific.
The leaked document referred to Chinese “ship visits”. It raised fears the pact could pave the way for Chinese troops and naval warships to be posted to the region.
News of the pact sparked concern within Australia’s government that China would seek to deploy naval power less than 1,200 miles from the country’s coast.
Beijing announced it had signed a wide-ranging pact with the Solomon Islands on April 19 just hours after Washington said it was sending officials to the Pacific nation amid concerns President Xi Jinping could establish a military foothold there.
The move sparked concern among the international community that China may be seeking to expand its presence throughout the region.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the signing of the pact indicated the “intense pressure” from China felt by Pacific island nations.
The pact also raised concern in Taipei that Beijing was solidifying its ties with the Solomon Islands.
The island nation cut longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing months after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare won a second term in 2019.
China accused Western countries, including Australia and the US, of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact, which Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described as a “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries”.
The timing of Foreign Minister Yi’s visit comes at a sensitive time, just weeks before Australia holds a national election on May 21.
Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton told Sky News that the trip was part of a pattern of aggressive behaviour by China.
He said: “It’s obviously provocative, particularly during the course of an election campaign.
“And I think we, again, need to be eyes wide open about what is happening [with China] in our region.”
The visit has pushed national security concerns related to China up the agenda during Australia’s election campaign.
James Batley, a former Australian high commissioner to the Solomons, said: “From Australia’s point of view, it represents the realisation of a very long-standing anxiety that has been one of the foundations of Australian policy towards the Pacific – that a potentially hostile power may establish itself in the region.”
China’s envoy to Australia, Xia Qian, attempted to reassure Canberra on Thursday after reports emerged of the planned trip.
Ambassador Qian said China’s engagement with South Pacific island countries poses no threat to Australia.
Writing in The Australian Financial Review, he said: “The cooperation between China and the South Pacific island countries is conducive to people’s well-being on both sides, and regional prosperity and stability, and will by no means threaten Australia’s security.”
He added: “China’s rise should not be seen as a threat to Australia.”
In response, Prime Minister Morrison, whose conservative government is seeking a fourth term in this month’s elections, said he disagreed with the ambassador that “Chinese government interference in the Pacific is of no consequence”.
He said: “I think it’s of great consequence.”
He continued: “I support the Australian national interests, not the Chinese government’s view of what national interests are, whether they be in Australia or across the Pacific, and that’s why I’ve always taken a very strong stance upon this.”
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Solomons Prime Minister Sogavare has maintained that there will be no Chinese military base in his country, while China has denied seeking to establish a military presence in the country.
China and the Solomon Islands appear to have moved closer together following political and social unrest in the Pacific nation, sparked in part by the government’s decision to switch diplomat allegiance from Taiwan – the self-governing island Beijing considers a breakaway province – to China.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the signing of the security pact between the two nations “could increase destabilisation within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region”.
China’s rivals, including the US and Australia, fear that Beijing is seeking to increase its military dominance in the Pacific region.
In the South China Sea, China has ramped up its military presence in recent years by seizing and fortifying sparse areas of land claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan and asserted rights over other areas claimed by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not released any information about the trip.
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