Australian opposition party vows to train Pacific armies

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s opposition party promised Tuesday to establish a Pacific defense school to train neighboring armies in response to China’s potential military presence on the Solomon Islands.

The school was among a range of measures that the center-left Labor Party has promised to increase Australia’s engagement in its region if the opposition wins elections on May 21.

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 result in a Chinese naval presence less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the northeast Australian coast.

There are also concerns 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 spokesperson Penny Wong said Australia needed to restore its place as the partner of choice in the Pacific region.

“Let’s be clear, the prospect of a Chinese base less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia’s coastline is dramatically detrimental to Australia’s security interests,” Wong said. “That has occurred on Mr. Morrison’s watch.”

The Australia-Pacific Defense School would deepen institutional links between the Australian Defense Force and its regional counterparts while supporting the region’s needs, a policy statement said.

Opposition defense spokesperson Brendan O’Connor said Australia currently only provided some training for its neighbors’ commissioned military officers and none for lower ranks.

“In recent years, this government has been derelict when it comes to its relationship with … Pacific island countries,” O’Connor said.

Morrison stood by his government’s record during its 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 that had a diplomatic mission in each of the countries that make up the Pacific Islands Forum and has provided every country with naval patrol boats.

A Labor government would double funding for Australia’s aerial surveillance of its neighbors’ territorial waters to reduce illegal fishing and help finance 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 promised to spend an additional AU$525 million ($379 million) over four years on aid to Pacific countries plus East Timor.

The state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. would be funded to take more Australian television, radio and online media content to a broader Pacific audience. Partnerships would be built with Pacific broadcasters to carry 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 the Chinese security pact with the island nation as Australia’s biggest policy 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 should the Chinese pact pose a threat to U.S. or allied interests.