Scott Morrison has refused to explain the consequences if Australia’s “red line” regarding a Chinese military base on Solomon Island is crossed, with the Coalition under sustained political pressure on national security.
The prime minister also struggled on Tuesday to land a response to Labor’s pledge to restore Australia’s influence in the Pacific, insisting the opposition’s announcement was largely an extension of Coalition policies while ridiculing the push for greater regional broadcasting.
The Coalition wants the primary focus of the campaign to be on economic management but Morrison is instead mired in controversy about the consequences of a new security agreement between China and Solomon Islands.
National security, like the economy, is considered an electoral strength for the Coalition, but the security deal in the Pacific has generated public debate about Morrison’s competence. A sustained focus on China’s influence in the region is also uncomfortable for Liberal MPs in electorates with large Chinese-Australian communities.
Labor sought to seize the political initiative on Tuesday, declaring the security pact was another example of “a prime minister who talks a big game but has delivered so little and dropped the ball when it comes to the Pacific”.
The opposition pledged that, if elected on 21 May, it would increase foreign aid to the Pacific by $525m over four years, while also deploying a range of soft and hard power measures and economic initiatives.
Labor’s line of attack on the Coalition was backed up by Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who told ABC radio: “This is a hose you have to hold, this needs time and attention. You cannot abrogate or step away from responsibility.”
Morrison declared on Sunday that Australia and the US shared the same “red line” when it came to opposing a Chinese military base on Solomon Islands.
But pressed on what that red line might mean in practice, and what would happen if it was ultimately crossed, Morrison declined to provide any details. He said it “would not be responsible for me to speculate in public about what Australia, United States and others would be doing in circumstances such as that”.
In August 2012, then US president Barack Obama declared the Assad regime using chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be a “red line” for his administration. Assad stepped over the red line, and Obama failed to enforce his threat, in an episode widely considered the most significant foreign policy blunder of his presidency.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, was similarly non-committal when pressed on Sunday’s red line declaration. Payne told the ABC that Australia was “pleased” with Manasseh Sogavare’s assurances that Solomon Islands would not allow a military base.
In response to a question about how Morrison’s red line would be enforced, she said: “Ultimately we would, of course, consult with other partners were that to happen, and we work every day to ensure that it does not happen.”
Morrison said Australia’s relationship with Solomon Islands sought to “empower them”, and in a clear criticism of China’s motives, he added: “We don’t want to see that compromised by countries coming in from outside the region which have other agendas other than the advancement of the national security and the peace and the prosperity of those countries.”
He also rounded on the Pacific policy Labor unveiled on Tuesday. The prime minister chose to ridicule the pledge to expand regional broadcasting into the Pacific.
Morrison told 2GB the opposition’s “answer to solving the Solomon Islands problem is to have Q&A in Honiara”.
He later told reporters in Townsville: “What they are effectively saying is they will keep doing what we have been doing. There is one difference. I sent in the AFP, the Labor party wants to send in the ABC when it comes to their Pacific solution.”
The ABC is one of Australia’s most trusted institutions, but attacks on the ABC are popular with elements of Morrison’s conservative base.
Two months after the Coalition was rebuked by current and former national security officials for weaponising a divide on China policy, Morrison said: “They are playing politics with the Pacific and the only ones who are benefiting from Labor’s attacks on the government is the Chinese government and it would seem the ABC.”
The shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, dismissed Morrison’s line of attack regarding the ABC. Keneally said Pacific nations “should hear Australian voices and not the Chinese Communist party”.
In a broader attack on the Coalition’s national security credentials, Keneally dismissed “hairy chested, chest-thumping rhetoric from a prime minister who talks a big game but has delivered so little and dropped the ball when it comes to the Pacific”.
“The only reason the prime minister is out there talking about red lines is because he dropped the ball already,” she told ABC TV.
Some Coalition members responded to Labor’s Pacific policy by saying it was “not really clear how it’s any different to what the government is already doing”.
At a press conference, Payne characterised the policy as “a list of continuations, carbon copies and cosmetic changes”.
She said the government was spending $2.7bn in the Pacific this year. But after emphasising that “record” amount, the foreign minister also questioned whether more aid spending would have the effect implied by Labor.
James Paterson, the head of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, was also asked on Tuesday to elaborate on the consequences of crossing the red line.
“Well, it means we regard it as a very serious thing indeed … and we join with our allies in the United States and others in making that statement,” Paterson told Sky News.
“It would be a very, very significant development and we would have to respond.”
Pressed on the nature of the response, Paterson said it would “not be responsible” to canvass the details publicly. “All I can say is, backing in the prime minister, that we would take it very seriously and we would have to respond.”