SYDNEY - The Solomon Islands is refusing to agree to a new US-led regional deal which was due to be signed at a high-level meeting in Washington within days, disrupting weeks of negotiations and frustrating American attempts to reassert itself in the Pacific.
The Pacific island nation sent a diplomatic note to its regional partners saying it would not sign the declaration, adding that there was a lack of consensus over the deal and it needed more time to consider the agreement, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on Wednesday.
The US has been attempting to strengthen ties with Pacific nations in recent months as Chinese government influence grows in the region.
The unexpected announcement of a security agreement between Beijing and the Solomon Islands in April sent shock waves through the diplomatic community in the United States and Australia.
Weeks of negotiations have been held on the agreement ahead of the high-profile summit between US President Joe Biden and Pacific leaders which is due to start on Thursday in Washington, according to the ABC.
If signed, the deal would strengthen security ties between the US and the Pacific and help coordinate action on climate change, Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa told the broadcaster.
The Thursday meeting will represent the biggest-ever group of Pacific leaders hosted by the White House.
The US deal is similar to a region-wide pact which the Chinese government attempted to strike with 10 Pacific nations in May, the ABC reported.
Beijing's proposed agreement was scuppered when Pacific leaders said they were not given enough time to consider the deal.
Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said on Tuesday in Washington that countries had been working on the US summit declaration – "a vision statement” - that would cover five thematic areas, including human-centered development, tackling climate change, geopolitics and security of the Pacific region, commerce, and industry and trade ties.
The Solomons note said the declaration was “yet to enjoy consensus”.
“Solomons does state it won’t be able to sign the declaration but it doesn’t call on others to follow suit,” said Anna Powles, a Pacific security expert at New Zealand’s Massey University who has seen the note.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.
Solomon Islands opposition party leader Matthew Wales wrote in a tweet: “Strange inconsistency. Agreements with China are signed in secret & kept secret. Now insisting Parliament must deal with the regional agreement with the US? Insincerity writ large!”
The Solomon Islands says in the note, signed by its embassy in Washington, that the Pacific Islands Forum already has a mechanism for engaging with partners outside the region.
“Of course, China is a part of that mechanism, hence the US seeking to create alternative architecture such as its own regional partnership framework,” Powles said.
Speaking at an event in Washington hosted by Georgetown University, Panuelo said the Pacific island nations had come to realise the importance of “strength in numbers” and called for superpowers to talk to them about the issues most important for the region.
Efforts to reach a final text on the declaration ran into problems this week during a call between the US State Department and Pacific islands ambassadors, when the US side demanded removal of language agreed to by the island countries that Washington address the Marshall Islands’ nuclear issue, three sources familiar with the call, including a diplomat from a Pacific island state, told Reuters. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS