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Australia defends Solomon Islands ties after ‘invasion’ claim as China row grows

Australia defends Solomon Islands ties after ‘invasion’ claim as China row grows
Australia’s defence minister insisted the claims are not about the nation

Australia has sought to defend its ties with Solomon Islands after the South Pacific nation signed a security pact with China.

Prime minister Scott Morrison dismissed a furious response by the leader of the islands to western criticism of the deal.

In a fiery speech to parliament on Tuesday, the Solomons’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, said: “We are threatened with invasion”, but did not name any countries or give evidence for his claim.

“None of that is true,” Mr Morrison said on Thursday, responding to questions from reporters.

Defence minister Peter Dutton said he didn’t believe the comments were directed at Australia, which had defence forces and police personnel in the Solomon Islands at Mr Sogavare’s request.

“I can understand the pressure that prime minister Manasseh Sogavare is under at the moment, but in Australia, as he said, he finds a good friend,” Mr Dutton said.

<p>Australia defence minister Peter Dutton, right, and prime minster Scott Morrison defended the nation’s relationship with the Solomon Islands </p>

Australia defence minister Peter Dutton, right, and prime minster Scott Morrison defended the nation’s relationship with the Solomon Islands

“We haven’t been asked to withdraw,” he added.

The security pact has become a major election issue for Mr Morrison, who faces opposition party criticism that it made Australia “less safe” and was a major failing of diplomacy by his government. Western allies are concerned it could provide a gateway for a Chinese military presence in the Pacific.

In an election debate on Thursday, the opposition Labor Party said that the relationship with the Solomon Islands had deteriorated, and that Australia needed to invest more in Pacific diplomacy, not just build its defence spending.

“They have failed the art of statecraft,” said Labor’s defence spokesman, Brendan O’Connor.

Although details of the pact haven’t been disclosed, Mr Sogavare has ruled out a military base and said the deal covers policing to protect Chinese projects because an agreement with traditional partner Australia was “inadequate”.

Mr Sogavare also criticised Australia for referring to the Pacific as its “backyard”, saying this was an insulting term in local culture, where backyards are used to keep chickens, pigs and rubbish.

“We’ll work constructively and patiently and we’ll work in a professional way and a calm way,” Morrison told Nine Network’s Today show.

The Solomon Islands are located 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles) to the north of Australia.