US, Australia concerned by Solomon Islands-China pact

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja at a meeting on April 13, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia are concerned by a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands, the White House said in a statement on Tuesday (April 19).

"Officials from the four countries represented also shared concerns about a proposed security framework between the Solomon Islands and the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific," National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.

Officials from those nations met US Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell in Honolulu.  

The pact will not adversely impact or undermine peace and harmony in the region, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told Parliament on Wednesday (April 20).

Mr Sogavare asked friends, partners and neighbours to respect the country's sovereign interests.

The White House is sending a high-level US delegation to the Solomons' capital Honiara this week, said earlier it was concerned about "the lack of transparency and unspecified nature" of the pact.

The NSC said the United States would “intensify its engagement in the region to meet 21st-century challenges, from maritime security and economic development to the climate crisis and Covid-19.”

Australian officials said China appeared to want to pre-empt the arrival of the US delegation in Honiara, which the White House said would discuss concerns about China, as well as the reopening of a US embassy.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the framework pact had been signed recently by State Councilor Wang Yi and Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele. He did not detail where or when the signing took place.

Solomon Islands officials earlier appeared to suggest no agreement had yet been signed.  

Douglas Ete, chairman of Parliament’s public accounts committee, told fellow lawmakers that Chinese officials would arrive in mid-May to sign cooperation pacts. 

'Eyes wide open'

Prime Minister Sogavare told Parliament that a proposed security agreement would not include a Chinese military base. 

Ete said the agreements would increase cooperation on trade, education and fisheries, but that he opposed the idea of allowing China to establish a military base.

In parliament, Solomon Islands lawmakers urged Sogavare to publicly disclose the terms of the security pact.

“I ask all our neighbours, friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of the 
Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region,” Sogavare said.

He added the security cooperation with China was not directed at any countries or external alliances, “rather at our own internal security situation”.  

The Solomon Islands will “beef up” its police capacity so its own force can deal with incidents such as the November riots that saw buildings torched and lives lost, he said.

“Let me assure the people of the Solomon Islands that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open guided by our national interests,” Sogavare said. 

Canberra's concerns

Canberra is concerned that the pact could be a step towards a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km from Australia’s shores.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was “deeply disappointed” and continued to seek details of the terms of the agreement, noting that the signing had been announced by China.

She also expressed concern about a lack of transparency and said the pact had the “potential to undermine stability in our region"

Solomon Islands officials had previously initialed a security pact with the Chinese Embassy that would allow Chinese police to protect infrastructure and social order, but ministers had not yet signed it.

Last week, Zed Seselja, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, visited Honiara to ask Sogavare not to sign.  

New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said on Wednesday that his country had made clear to Solomon Islands and China its grave concerns at the pact’s potential to destabilise the Pacific region’s security.

“New Zealand has a long-term security partnership with Solomon Islands, and I am saddened that Solomon Islands has chosen nonetheless to pursue a security agreement outside the region,” she said.  

She added that an upcoming Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting would “discuss how we can build our region’s resilience to the geopolitical pressures that are impacting us all”.

Greg Poling, an Asia maritime security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was still not clear whether an agreement had been finalized. 

“So the US delegation, as with the recent Australian delegation that visited, are trying to convince the Solomons’ government to reverse course if possible, or at least to clarify the details and plans for implementation if not,” he said.

“The language leaked last week is quite vague and so there’s plenty of room to mitigate damage by narrowing how it will be implemented.”

 A leaked memo surfaced on social media last week showing that Beijing had told the 
Solomon Islands in December it wanted to send a team of 10 Chinese police with weapons including a sniper rifle and machine guns as well as listening devices to protect embassy staff in the wake of riots in Honiara.  

A separate leaked draft of a security pact included provisions for Chinese police to protect companies and infrastructure, and for Chinese naval vessels to replenish in Honiara.

Chinese spokesman Wang dismissed the planned US visit.  “Deliberate attempts to inflate tensions and mobilize rival camps are also doomed to fail,” he said. 

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.