Solomon Islands PM says security pact with China won’t undermine regional peace

REUTERS/Daniel Munoz/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Children fish at a beach in central Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on September 14, 2012.

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Solomon Islands’ decision to sign a security pact with China will not hurt or undermine peace and harmony in the region, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told parliament on Wednesday.

Sogavare confirmed the pact had been signed by foreign ministers from the two countries, a day after China announced the signing at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The move, days before a White House delegation, including Indo Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, is to arrive in Honiara, has heightened concerns in Canberra about the potential for a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 kilometers away.

The United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia shared concerns about the security pact “and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the White House said in a statement, after officials from those nations met with Campbell in Honolulu.

New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said on Wednesday that New Zealand had made clear to both Solomon Islands and China its grave concerns at the pact’s potential to destabilize 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.”

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

Sogavare said the pact would be disclosed after a “process,” adding the security cooperation with China was not directed at any countries or external alliances, “rather at our own internal security situation.”

“I ask all our neighbors, 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,” he said.

A leaked draft included provisions for Chinese police to maintain social order, and for Chinese naval vessels to replenish in the Solomon Islands, alarming Australia.

Sogavare told parliament a day earlier the pact would not allow a Chinese military base, and said on Wednesday the security pact allows for the protection of infrastructure, after riots in November saw buildings torched and lives lost.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in the middle of a national election campaign, has been criticized by the opposition Labor party over what they call the largest diplomatic failure in the Pacific since World War 2.

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that it was clear “relationships have broken down” between Australia and Sogavare, and that the Morrison government should have been engaging more deeply for longer.

Morrison said on Wednesday that Australia had communicated its position to Sogavare clearly but hadn’t sent the foreign minister because it did not want to tell Pacific islands what to do.

“I respect their sovereignty and I respect their electoral mandates,” he told reporters.

Australia has provided policing support to Honiara, a Pacific island neighbor, under a bilateral security treaty signed in 2017, and an earlier regional policing mission.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Wednesday “this has not been agreed in an open and transparent way.”

Australia’s Minister for International Development and Pacific Zed Seselja had met with Sogavare last week to urge him not to sign the pact with China, and in a joint statement with Payne on Tuesday evening said Australia was “deeply disappointed.”