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    Australia PM trails in poll amid criticism over handling of China-Solomons deal

    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is struggling to close the gap with the main opposition ahead of an upcoming general election, a poll showed on Tuesday, amid criticism over his handling of a security pact between China and Solomon Islands.

    A poll for The Australian newspaper showed centre-left Labor maintaining its 53-47 lead on a two-party preferred basis against the conservative Liberal-National coalition, even as it showed Morrison extending his lead as the preferred leader.

    With Australia going to polls on May 21, national security has dominated the election campaign after China last week struck the security deal with the Solomon Islands, stoking concerns in Canberra and Washington.

    Morrison, who has often attacked Labor as being "soft" on China, said the opposition was "playing politics with the Pacific and the only ones who are benefiting... is the Chinese government."

    Morrison on Sunday said China building a base in the Solomon Islands would be a "red line" for Australia, even as Beijing insisted the pact would only help the Solomon Islands maintain social order and cope with natural disasters and humanitarian relief.

    Morrison said "it would not be responsible for me to be speculating in public about what Australia, the United States and others would be doing in circumstances such as that."

    His political opponents cast the security pact as a failure of Morrison's government.

    "This has occurred on Morrison's watch," Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong told reporters, as she pledged A$525 million ($379 million) to boost defence aid for Pacific countries if Labor wins the election. "(The government's) response appears to be more chest beating. There is no point in beating your chest if you're beaten to the punch."

    ($1 = 1.3852 Australian dollars)

    (Reporting by Renju Jose. Editing by Gerry Doyle)




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