CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s opposition party vowed on Tuesday to establish a Pacific Defense School to train neighboring armies in response to China’s potential military presence in the Solomon Islands.
The school was part of a series of measures the centre-left Labor Party has promised to increase Australia’s engagement in its region if the opposition wins the May 21 election.
Labor has criticized Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Conservative government over a security pact announced last week between China and the Solomon Islands.
Australia and the United States fear the deal could lead to a Chinese naval presence within 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of Australia’s northeast coast.
There are also fears that other Pacific island countries financially weakened by the pandemic and its impact on tourism could be lured by China into similar deals.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Australia needed to reclaim its place as a partner of choice in the Pacific region.
“Let’s be clear, the prospect of a Chinese base less than 2,000 kilometers from the Australian coast is dramatically damaging to Australia’s security interests,” Wong said. “It happened on Mr Morrison’s watch.”
The Australia-Pacific Defense School will strengthen institutional links between the Australian Defense Force and its regional counterparts while serving the needs of the region, according to a policy statement.
Opposition defense spokesman Brendan O’Connor said Australia currently only provided training for commissioned military officers from its neighbors and none at lower ranks.
“In recent years, this government has been let down when it comes to its relationship with … Pacific island nations,” O’Connor said.
Morrison backed his government’s record in his nine years in office, saying Australia provided the Pacific with 1.8 billion Australian dollars ($1.3 billion) a year in aid.
Australia was the only country in the world to have a diplomatic mission in each of the countries that make up the Pacific Islands Forum and provided each country with naval patrol boats.
A Labor government would double funding for Australian aerial surveillance of its neighbors’ territorial waters to reduce illegal fishing and help fund clean energy infrastructure projects.
“What they’re effectively saying is they’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Morrison said, referring to Labor’s Pacific proposals.
Labor also pledged to spend an additional A$525 million ($379 million) over four years on aid to Pacific nations and East Timor.
The state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. would be funded to bring more Australian TV, radio and online media content to a wider Pacific audience. Partnerships would be established with Pacific broadcasters to bring Australian voices, values and identities to the region to counter Chinese television and radio.
Changes to Australian visas would also make it easier for Pacific Islanders to work and settle in Australia.
Australia is the Solomon Islands’ main security partner and largest donor of foreign aid. Labor has described China’s security pact with the island nation as Australia’s biggest political failure in the Pacific since World War II.
President Joe Biden’s administration has warned that the United States will take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands if the China pact poses a threat to U.S. or allied interests.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.