Australian, Solomon Islands ministers discuss China pact

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FILE - Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks with the media as she arrives for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 7, 2022. Payne said on Saturday, May 7, 2022 she met the Solomon Islands' Development Planning and Aid Coordination Minister Jeremiah Manele in the Australian east coast city of Brisbane as he transited through the airport on Friday night. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s foreign minister has met her Solomon Islands counterpart for the first time since the South Pacific nation signed a security pact with China, which has raised concerns about Beijing's encroachment on Australia's doorstep.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Saturday she met the Solomon Islands' Development Planning and Aid Coordination Minister Jeremiah Manele in the Australian east coast city of Brisbane as he transited through the airport on Friday night.

“Australia has been consistent and clear in stating our respect for Solomon Islands’ sovereign decision-making, however we have reiterated our deep concerns about the security agreement with China, including the lack of transparency,” Payne’s office said in a statement.

Payne’s office said the two agreed that Australia remained the Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice and that the Solomon Islands would not host a foreign military base less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off Australia’s northeast coast.

Manele could not be contacted for comment on Saturday.

The United States has said it will take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands should the agreement with China pose a threat to U.S. or allied interests. The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told Parliament this week that opponents of the security pact with China had threatened his country “with invasion.”

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan told Australian Broadcasting Corp. the two ministers had a “very productive conversation.” Australia said a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands was not in the interests of the region, Tehan said.

“What we want to do is to be making sure that we’re presenting a very strong case as to why it is incredibly important that we don’t see militarization of the Pacific islands,” Tehan said.

Tehan said Payne and Manele also discussed how Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government needed to keep working on the bilateral relationship.

Morrison’s coalition is seeking a rare fourth three-year term in elections on May 25.

Morrison welcomed the meeting as a reinforcement of Australia’s leadership role in the region.

“It also reassured, once again, that the Solomon Islands are not considering or would not support the establishment of a naval presence,” Morrison told reporters while campaigning in the west coast city of Perth.

The China-Solomon Islands security pact announced last month has become a major focus of the election campaign.

After details of a draft pact were released, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, flew to the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara, on April 12 to unsuccessfully ask the government to abandon it.

The center-left opposition Labor Party said at the time that Payne, a more senior minister than Seselja, should have been sent instead.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese welcomed Payne’s meeting with Manele, saying, “It’s about time.”

Albanese has also criticized Morrison for not phoning his Solomon Islands counterpart since the pact was signed. Morrison has said he was following the advice of intelligence officials.

The Labor Party has condemned the pact as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II. Albanese has promised closer engagement between Australia and its South Pacific island neighbors if Labor wins government.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has suggested that Beijing timed the pact's announcement during an election campaign to undermine her conservative Liberal Party’s prospects for reelection.

Seselja arrived in Honiara on the same day that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Manele about Washington’s plan to reopen an embassy in Honiara.

While not mentioning the United States or Australia by name, Sogavare said in Parliament that his country was “insulted” by the “lack of trust by the concerned parties.”

Sogavare has maintained that there would be no Chinese base in his country and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the islands.

A draft of the pact, which was leaked online, said Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment and China could send police and armed forces there “to assist in maintaining social order.” The Solomon Islands and China have not released the final version of the agreement.

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