Defence Minister Peter Dutton has raised the prospect of China paying bribes to Pacific island nations, saying the large country has changed its approach in recent years.
Speaking to Sky News earlier this morning, Dutton said if China’s recently struck security deal with Solomon Islands had happened in isolation, “that would be bad enough” – but China appears to be following a pattern.
“They’ve got a port in Sri Lanka, where they’ve taken that port back because the Sri Lankans couldn’t pay for the debt that they’d incurred from the Chinese in building that port,” the Defence Minister said.
“If you look at what’s happened in Africa, there are corrupt payments being made – we could never compete with that sort of playbook.”
Asked if corrupt payments had been made in the Solomons case, Dutton said: “It’s not something that I can comment on.”
However, the Defence Minister said the reality was China had changed in recent years.
“I see intelligence and there’s a lot of work that we, as a national security committee, have done on this issue for a long time to look at ways in which we can, frankly, prevent this situation from happening. Because we don’t want any military presence from the Chinese only 1800-2000 kilometres of our coastline.
“China’s incredibly aggressive – the acts of foreign interference, the preparedness to pay bribes to get outcomes, and to beat other countries to deals – that’s the reality of the modern China.”
Nevertheless, Dutton insisted the government’s relationship with the Solomons remains strong and Australian is still the country’s partner of choice.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong wasn’t so sure.
“As much as the government wants to create fights, make accusations, say this would have happened anyway, what I’d say is this: on their watch, this has happened,” she told Sky.
“We are no longer the first partner of choice for a Pacific island nation and that is to the detriment of Australia’s position in our region.”