Experts have been left perplexed by a suggestion from the Home Affairs Minister that China sought to influence the Australian election by strategically leaking news of its new security deal with the Solomon Islands.
Karen Andrews has been called a fantasist over the claims and since been accused of seeking to create a diversion away from an election debate on national security that is eroding the Coalition’s national security credentials.
“Why now, why right in the middle of a federal election campaign is all of this coming to light?” Ms Andrews said on Brisbane radio this week about the Solomon Islands deal, feared to give Beijing pretext to establish military capability in the country.
“We talk about political interference and that has many forms.
“I think we need to be aware of what Beijing is doing and what it is trying to achieve.”
Ms Andrews is one of the most senior women in the Morrison government and has portfolio responsibility for a $3 billion government agency responsible for national and border security.
“This is a case of critical rhetoric that has run away from itself,” said Peter Dean, the chair of defence studies at the University of Western Australia.
“This has to be seen as wild speculation or a spurious claim.
“Its tone and timing is clearly oriented to the domestic political debate in Australia in an election campaign with the government under heavy pressure on this topic.
“Such comments are not making a positive contribution to our relationship with the Solomon Islands or the Pacific.
“Rather than looking to blame everyone else for this outcome they need to focus on how we can engage with the region on a more productive basis.”
The Solomon Islands pact, signed earlier this month, represents the crowning achievement of a Chinese strategy to deepen its influence in the Pacific with diplomacy, infrastructure and loans that began in 2006.
Ms Andrews has yet to explain what source she was relying upon for her claim.
‘Doesn’t make much sense’
Labor is seeking a briefing on the basis for the Minister’s claim, challenging her to immediately go public with the basis for any suggestion a foreign power was seeking to influence Australia’s election.
The Shadow Home Affairs Minister, Kristina Keneally, accused her counterpart of peddling “conspiratorial fantasies and unhinged commentary”.
Professor James Laurenceson, who heads the Australia-China Relations Institute, noted that the Minister’s claim betrayed serious logical flaws.
The draft agreement for the security deal between Beijing and Honiara first emerged on social media after a leak sourced to within the Solomon Islands parliament in March.
“Talk of election interference doesn’t make much sense,” Professor Laurenceson said.
“The timing of the leaked draft agreement was determined in the Solomon Islands, not China.
“If China wanted to complicate Australia’s life it has the means to do so directly as the region’s leading power. This is based on a particular view of China as hyper-calculating and pulling on every string.”
But in comments to Sky News released on Thursday, Ms Andrews reframed her comments as mere questions.
“We are very mindful of China’s activities and we will always put Australia’s interests first, second, third, and fourth,” she said.
“I think there are a lot of questions.”
Bombshell allegations of a campaign of Russian interference were made across the two most recent American presidential elections.