Scott Morrison says it would have been ‘weakness’ for him to meet new Chinese ambassador

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The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, says there will be no diplomatic thaw in relations with China until it lifts a block on ministerial meetings.

“So long as China continues to refuse to have dialogue with Australian ministers and the prime minister, I think that’s an entirely proportional response,” Morrison told reporters on Saturday regarding reports he declined to meet China’s new ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian.

“That would be a demonstration of weakness and I can assure you as prime minister that’s the last message I’d ever send to China.”

The comments come after the superpower signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, allowing its ships to be based in the Pacific and to have a navy base.

The deal has triggered geopolitical anxieties for Australia and the US, both wary of China’s expansionist footprint in the region.

“China has completely blocked any minister-to-minister dialogue,” Morrison said.

“[Until] that block is removed by China, well, I think Australians would see it as very inappropriate for me to engage in that dialogue with an ambassador.”

Morrison also defended his government’s track record of providing foreign aid to Pacific countries.

“We actually increased our investment in overseas development assistance in the Pacific by 50% … while [Labor] were chasing votes for the Security Council throwing money at countries far away from our region,” he said.

“I think there is great concern across the Pacific family [over the deal] because we are in constant contact with our Pacific family. And I’ll be in further discussions with leaders over the course of this weekend.”

When asked if Australia could convince the Solomons government to change its mind, Morrison said: “Well, ultimately, these are the decisions of sovereign governments. And the communication we had yesterday from Prime Minister [Manasseh] Sogavare was that he greatly appreciates the incredible support.

“It was when the Solomon Islands recently went into a time of crisis, the first place the Solomon Islands called was Australia. And we sent in our defence forces and our police, and they’re still there and we have committed to them being there till the end of 2023. So we will be there on the ground and continue to be there on the ground to support peace and security and stability in the Solomon Islands.”

In a statement on Friday, the Solomon Islands said “broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country”.

Australia will allocate $22m in the upcoming budget for the Solomon Islands government to fund salaries for essential workers to help with the impact of civil unrest and Covid.

The archipelago switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, which partly led to deadly riots in the capital, Honiara, last November.

Australia, which has historically provided security to the Solomons, led a policing mission after the riots, following a request from its prime minister.

A spokesperson for the US State Department said the draft security agreement and the police deal did not address the underlying issues that contributed to the November unrest.

“We do not believe [People’s Republic of China] security forces and their methods need to be exported,” the spokesperson added.

“This would only fuel local, regional and international concerns over Beijing’s unilateral expansion of its internal security apparatus to the Pacific.”

Last month, Washington said it would open an embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking to strengthen military relations there.

Earlier on Saturday, the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said increasing foreign aid and addressing climate change were crucial to maintaining stability in the Pacific.

“We wouldn’t have cut funding to aid,” he told reporters in Sydney on Saturday. “The other thing is creating stability in the region by acting on the most important issue for our Pacific neighbours, which is climate change.”

He said Labor’s plan to cut emissions by 2030 was “a fully costed plan, the most comprehensively costed plan of any policy put forward by any opposition in an election ever”.

The shadow assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones, told the ABC the Coalition had “dropped the ball” on the Solomon Islands.

“This government’s going out of its way to poke our Pacific neighbours in the eye, whether it’s our belligerent position on climate change, which is a critical issue for Pacific island nations, or whether it’s withdrawing aid,” he said. “We need a new focus on the Asian-Pacific region.”

The Guardian

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