Senior Labor politicians have sought to downplay claims Australia’s “watershed” climate and security agreement with Tuvalu was pointed at China.
At the Pacific Island Forum on Friday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made the historic announcement that Tuvalu citizens displaced by climate change would be offered residency in Australia.
In exchange, Australia is to be the small Pacific island’s security partner of choice.
The announcement came just days after Mr Albanese became the first Australian prime minister in seven years to visit China, in what marked the most significant breakthrough in stabilising the relationship.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong would not be drawn when asked “in all honesty” the deal with Tuvalu had “nothing to do with China”.
“We recognise we live in a more contested region, and we have to work harder to be a partner of choice, we know that,” she told ABC’s Insiders.
“Unlike the previous government, we have been doing the work with the Pacific Island Forum members to assure Australia’s presence as a member of the family and as a partner of choice.”
The agreement is the most significant deal Australia has struck with a Pacific nation, Senator Wong said.
She added that Australia has left the door open for other Pacific nations to sign up to similar security agreements.
The deal comes more than 18 months after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in the last days of the Morrison government.
At the time, Labor accused the Coalition of taking their eye off the ball and vowed to be more engaged in the Pacific.
Defence Minister Richard Marles, appearing on Sky News earlier on Sunday, said the agreement with Tuvalu was a “watershed” moment in Australia’s relationship with the Pacific.
But asked whether China had been consulted ahead of the agreement being announced, Mr Marles said Australia had spoken “with other countries in the region about what we were doing”.
Asked how the announcement would be received in Beijing, Mr Marles said “it will be received in the way in which it is”,
“This is about Australia, working with countries in the Pacific, our neighbours, countries which have seen us as their natural partner of choice to improve the human development of countries in the Pacific and I hope that this is something which is welcomed around the world,” he said.
“Yes the Pacific is a place of greater geo-strategic contest, there’s no doubt about that … I’ve long argued at the forefront of all that needs to be our commitment to the human development of the people of the Pacific.”
When asked about the agreement, the Chinese spokesman for Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, said China’s hope was for “all countries to be able to enhance friendly co-operation with Pacific Island countries in the spirit of openness, inclusiveness and mutual benefit and solidarity, and together contribute to the peace, stability and development of that region”.
Originally published as China questions remain after Australia inks historic deal with Tuvalu