China’s failure to stop Solomon Islands security deal caught

China’s failure to stop Solomon Islands security deal caught

One of the criticisms of the Morrison government over its failure to stop Beijing signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands is that it appeared to be caught off guard.

The ABC has learned of a contributing factor in diplomatic blindsiding and it's more mundane than you'd think - but nonetheless significant.

He was absent for nearly six months, shortly before the draft agreement emerged.

Dr Lachlan Strahan is Australia's High Commissioner in Honiara, where he has a strong personal relationship with the Solomons Prime Minister and key figures in the Sogavare government.

When Beijing was ingratiating itself with Manasseh Sogavare and his government, Dr Strahan was laid in bed with a serious back injury in Canberra.

Doctor Strahan flew out of Honiara for his first trip back in more than a year, after working tirelessly with local authorities on the COVID response.

After 14 days of mandatory quarantine in Brisbane, the high commissioner arrived in Canberra in late September.

Soon after arriving home, the long-serving diplomat suffered a debilitating back injury and when anti-government riots in the Solomon's capital in November, the senior diplomat was unable to travel back.

As the Australian government tried to respond to an urgent request for law-and-order assistance from the Sogavare government, Deputy High Commissioner Sally Anne Vincent remained in Honiara.

Two days before Christmas, China delivered an unwelcome surprise to the Australian government, when it announced that it had agreed to send a team of police anti-riot equipment and an ad-hoc police advisory team of Dozens of Australian diplomats in Honiara, with some fearing a broader military deal in the works.

In early February, the High Commissioner was given the all clear permission to fly back to Honiara.

Within weeks of Dr Strahan's return, his colleagues' worst fears were confirmed — a wide-ranging security agreement between Beijing and Honiara was close to being finished and a draft was leaked to the media.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that Ms Vincent acted as a head of mission and undertook all the duties of the role.

Ms Vincent is a seasoned and experienced diplomat, the department said in a statement.

She had full access to the Solomon Islands government counterparts, including the Prime Minister and Ministers. The Australian High Commission was staffed with 24 Australian government officers, while Dr Strahan was injured.