Scott Morrison says China is exerting “enormous pressure” on Pacific island countries, as the Australian prime minister fends off questions about whether his government was caught off-guard by the security deal with Solomon Islands.
Morrison said it was not “just as easy as picking up the phone or sending a foreign minister”, after Labor characterised the signing of the deal as the biggest Australian foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the second world war.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, signalled that Labor would “have more to say” during the election campaign about rebuilding the public service, including the foreign service, in order to boost Australia’s diplomatic influence in the region.
Questions are being asked about when Australia knew about the security agreement being negotiated between Solomon Islands and China, amid conflicting accounts about whether ministers were blindsided.
Morrison said he had spoken with the prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, “on several occasions this year” including “within the last month or so”, although he did not provide specific dates.
But it would be counterproductive for Australia to be seen as “throwing its weight around in the region”, Morrison told reporters on Friday.
“There’s enormous pressure and influence which is placed on Pacific island leaders across the region, which the Chinese government have been engaged in for some time,” Morrison said during an election campaign media conference in Ipswich.
Morrison told the Seven Network earlier on Friday that Australia had “a very good understanding” about China’s activities in the Pacific, when asked by a television host whether bribery could have played a role in the deal being inked.
Morrison said Beijing did not “play by the same rules as transparent liberal democracies”.
Several Australian ministers have previously indicated they were caught off-guard after a draft of the agreement was leaked online on 24 March.
The draft raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, was asked in a Senate estimates hearing on 1 April when she had first became aware of the proposed deal, and said: “When it became public – I think it was a social media post on 24 March.”
New Zealand’s defence minister, Peeni Henare, said both he and the Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, had been caught “off-guard” by the draft deal.
“We were both surprised, because the intelligence we were getting didn’t exactly match that,” Henare told Stuff in the days after the deal.
“We knew that there were some challenges there, with respect to China, but the leaked draft agreement … it did catch me as a surprise, and even minister Dutton.”
Dutton’s office declined to comment.
But behind the scenes, officials have been briefing that the government was aware of what was going on in Honiara ahead of the leak.
Morrison refused on Friday to confirm reports from the Nine newspapers that Australian intelligence may also have played a role in the leak of the draft agreement, saying he would “never comment on intelligence matters of that nature” and they were “highly sensitive matters”.
In the days following the leak, the opposition leader of Solomon Islands, Matthew Wale, said he had warned Australia about the draft agreement last year.
Wale told Guardian Australia that he had warned Australia’s high commissioner to Solomon Islands, Dr Lachlan Strahan, about the deal in August or September 2021. He said Strahan “took note of it and that’s the last I heard”.
Labor used this allegation from Wale to criticise the government for not acting sooner or more concertedly to head off the deal.
Wale’s claims are disputed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which claims that a meeting between Wale and Strahan took place in May 2021, not August 2021.
“Opposition leader Wale and officials did not discuss a possible security agreement with China during this meeting or any other,” a Dfat spokesperson said.
Labor has criticised the government for sending a junior minister, Zed Seselja, to Honiara last week, rather than the foreign minister or the prime minister. The signing of the deal was announced on Tuesday this week.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said Morrison had not been upfront with Australians about the security deal, noting some ministers had said “they were all over this” and other ministers were “saying they didn’t know”.
“We know Mr Morrison doesn’t hold a hose – apparently he doesn’t pick up the phone either,” she told reporters in Perth on Friday.
She said China was “much more assertive and much more aggressive”, and Australia needed to ensure it remained a partner of choice for the Pacific. A Labor government would bring more energy, focus and resources to diplomacy with the Pacific, she added.
Albanese said he would pursue deeper relationships with Pacific counterparts and would announce policies later in the campaign on foreign aid and boosting Australia’s diplomatic capacity.
Speaking to ABC TV from his Sydney home where he is isolating with Covid, Albanese said Australia must be more “forward leaning” in order to maintain its influence.
“We know that the number one concern for the Pacific is, of course, climate change and we would have a positive response on climate change,” Albanese said.
But Morrison said the Australian government had followed “a very careful process” based on “informed advice that we get from our intelligence and security agencies”.
The Coalition attempted to discredit Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, focusing on his comments from last year that “basing our actions in the Pacific on an attempt to strategically deny China would be a historic mistake’’.
“Australia has no right to expect a set of exclusive relationships with the Pacific nations,” Marles wrote in the book The Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific, according to a front-page report in News Corp’s The Australian.
“They are perfectly free to engage on whatever terms they choose with China or, for that matter, any other country. Disputing this would be resented, as the recent past has shown.”
Dutton said it was “quite startling” that Marles could have made such statements, which were “remarkably similar” to the position of the Greens.
Wong said Marles had been attempting to make the point that “we live in a world where there’s a competition for influence” and “in that world, you can’t sit back”.