CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s prime minister and his opposition rival clashed heatedly over the country's tumultuous relationship with China on Wednesday in the first leaders' debate ahead of elections on May 21.
The opposition center-left Labor Party has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government of Australia’s biggest foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since World War II after China and the Solomon Islands announced this week they had signed a bilateral security pact.
The pact has raised fears of a Chinese naval presence on the Solomon Islands, only 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) off the northeast Australian coast.
Morrison said China was to blame for the new threat, not Australia, which is the Solomon Islands' main security partner.
“It is a very serious issue, but what I found interesting today was that ... the Labor Party said that this was a policy failure. No, this has happened because China is seeking to interfere in the Pacific,” Morrison said.
He said it was odd that the Labor Party was saying it was Australia's fault instead of acknowledging that China was interfering in the region.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese described that accusation as an “outrageous slur.”
“This isn’t so much a Pacific step up. It’s a Pacific stuff up. This is a major foreign policy failure by Australia,” Albanese said. The Labor leader was referring to Australia’s policy of increased engagement with its island neighbors, which the government describes as its Pacific step up.
“The truth is we all know that China has changed. China has changed its posture. It’s more aggressive, it’s more active in the region and we need to understand that and respond to it,” Albanese added.
The government has described Labor as weak on China and argues that a Labor government would bend to Chinese economic coercion.
With China imposing official and unofficial trade sanctions against Australia in recent years, the government argues that Beijing wants Labor to win the election.
A conservative lobby group is running ads on the side of trucks depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping casting his vote for Labor.
Labor takes credit for thwarting the government’s plan in 2014 to sign an extradition treaty with China. Bilateral relations have since deteriorated, and the government now warns that Australians risk arbitrary detention if they visit China.
Morrison on Wednesday said Labor had accused him of being “too strong” against China, pointing out to other world leaders how China was attempting to coerce Australia. Morrison said he had also been accused of racism for demanding an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and for banning flights from China early in the pandemic.
Several experts say both parties are largely united on national security issues and that the government is fabricating differences on China.
Labor has been leading the government in most opinion polls in recent months. The government is seeking a rare fourth three-year term.
Wednesday’s debate was hosted by News Corp. in the city of Brisbane in pivotal Queensland state in front of an audience of 100 people who have yet to decide who they would vote for. Albanese was voted the debate winner by 40 audience members, 35 gave it to Morrison and 25 were undecided.