Australia parries China security move in Solomons

·3-min read

Australia pushed back against China's new security pact with Solomon Islands on Friday, saying the Pacific region has no need of outside help to protect itself.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong delivered the message on a one-day visit to the capital Honiara, the latest destination in a South Pacific travel blitz to parry China's diplomatic and security manoeuvres in the region.

It was the highest-ranking Australian visit since the Solomons signed a secretive security pact with China in April, sparking alarm in the United States and its allies in the Pacific.

"Australia's view does remain that the Pacific family should be responsible for our security," she said after meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

"The Pacific family is more than capable of providing that security," said Wong, who took office after her centre-left Labor Party won power in May elections.

Wong told reporters that she welcomed Sogavare's reassurances "that there will not be a military base nor a persistent foreign military base here in Solomon Islands".

The security pact had fed fears in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan that China may establish a military presence in Solomon Islands, less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Australia.

The agreement has not been made public, but a leaked draft showed it would allow Chinese naval deployments to the islands.

- 'Partner of choice' -

China and Solomon Islands have denied having plans for a Chinese military base.

The Solomons' prime minister also repeated earlier assurances that Australia was its first "partner of choice" in security and development, Wong said.

The foreign minister flagged better cooperation on climate change after Australia's new government nearly doubled its 2030 carbon-cutting targets, saying she understood global warming was a "lived reality" for low-lying Pacific islands.

Since taking office, Wong has flown to Japan, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand to shore up relations in the Pacific region.

Sogavare has fumed over foreign criticism of the China deal.

"We are being treated as kindergarten students walking around with Colt 45s in our hands, and therefore we need to be supervised," he told parliament in early May of the foreign pressure, including from Australia's former conservative government.

"We are insulted."

China's South Pacific ambitions suffered a setback in late May when 10 Pacific island nations rebuffed its push for a wide-ranging regional security pact.

Behind the scenes, Pacific leaders expressed misgivings about being pulled into Beijing's orbit.

But China has secured strong relations with the Solomons, where Beijing has an embassy and is financing a national stadium complex reportedly worth $53 million to host the 2023 Pacific Games.

The Solomons government severed ties with Taiwan in September 2019 in favour of diplomatic relations with China, a switch that unlocked investment but stoked inter-island rivalries.

Last November, protests against Sogavare's rule flared in Honiara, during which much of the city's Chinatown was torched. Australia led an international peacekeeping mission to help restore calm.


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