Canberra, Australia: (AP) – Australia and the United States are stepping up diplomatic outreach to the Solomon Islands after China signed a security agreement with the South Pacific island nation that could lead to Beijing establishing a military presence there.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday that his Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, had flown to the Solomon Islands the day before for talks with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on the April 1 security pact that the country agreed to with China.
Seselja said he had asked Sogavare to abandon the Chinese deal.
“We have respectfully asked the Solomon Islands not to consider signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in a spirit of regional openness and transparency, in line with our region’s security framework,” Seselja said in a statement.
The trip came the same day that US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele about Washington’s plan to reopen an embassy in the capital, Honiara.
The notice of the reopening of the embassyThere have been closed since 1993, came in February, before security pact came to light, but in the middle already growing concerns about Chinese influence in the strategically important country.
A Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands would put not just on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also close to Guam, with its massive US military bases.
At the time he announced the reopening of the embassy, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was seeking to increase its influence in the Solomon Islands before China becomes “heavily embedded.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the call between Sherman and Manele referred to “our joint efforts to expand and deepen interventions between our countries,” beyond the embassy plans, but did not provide further details.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended Beijing’s cooperation with the Solomon Islands as being based on the “principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit” and in accordance with international law and international practice.
“It is conducive to social stability and lasting peace and security in the Solomon Islands and will help promote peace, stability and development in the Solomon Islands and the rest of the South Pacific region,” Zhao told reporters Wednesday at a daily briefing.
“Security cooperation between China and Solomon Islands is not aimed at any third party or work in opposition to Solomon Islands cooperation with other countries, but will complement the final regional cooperation mechanism in a positive way,” he said.
He added that other countries “should see this in an objective and fair way, respect the sovereignty and independent decision of China and the Solomon Islands, avoid provoking confrontation and create division in the region and do something that promotes regional stability and development.”
According to a draft agreement leaked online, Chinese warships could stop in Solomon for “logistical replenishment,” and China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to Solomon “to help maintain social order.”
The draft agreement specifies that China must approve what information is disclosed about joint security events, including media briefings.
The Solomon Islands government has said a draft was initialed two weeks ago and that it would soon be “cleaned up” and finalized.
The Solomon Islands government has said it will not allow China to build a military base there, and China has refused to seek a military foothold. in the South Pacific, but the pact triggered alarm bells among many Western nations.
When it was signed, two top Australian intelligence officers – Australian Secret Intelligence Service chief Paul Symon and Office of National Intelligence Director General Andrew Shearer – met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasse Sogavare.
Australia already has a bilateral security pact with Solomon Islands and Australian police forces have been in the capital Honiara since riots in November.
Morrison said Australia respectfully and directly communicated with the Solomon Islands about the Chinese security agreement.
“The suggestion that somehow, some people seem to be doing, that the Solomon Islands is somehow controlled by Australia I think is offensive to the Solomon Islands,” Morrison says.
“They are a sovereign nation. I respect their independence and they will make their own decisions about their own sovereignty,” he said.
“What we have done is make sure they are fully aware of the risks and security issues that concern not only Australia but islands, Pacific nations across the Pacific,” he added.
Seselja also said with satisfaction Sogavare’s statement that it remains the Solomon Islands ‘security preferred partner, and his commitment that the Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions in foreign powers.’
Morrison announced on Sunday that an election will be held in Australia on May 21. He now heads a business ministry and is due to consult the opposition on any political decisions.
Opposition spokeswoman for foreign affairs Penny Wong said the Australian government had failed in the Solomon Islands.
“It happens at Mr. “Morrison’s watch – the warnings have been there for months, the draft deal public for weeks – but he has failed to front up and explain how Australia responds,” Wong said in a statement.
“We need to work with the Pacific family and allies to build a region where sovereignty is respected – and where Australia is the preferred partner,” she added.