Australia asks PM Sogavare to avoid security deal

Zed Seselja. PHOTO: DFAT

Australian minister Zed Seselja has “respectfully asked” the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to not sign a proposed security agreement between the Pacific island nation and China.

Canberra is concerned the security pact could be a step towards a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from Australia.

“We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” Seselja said in a statement after meeting Sogavare and other ministers on Wednesday.

China seeks respect

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that the security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands was not targeted at any third party and did not contradict the cooperation the Pacific nation has with other countries.

Australia should “respect the sovereign and independent choices made by China and the Solomons and not instigate confrontation,” Zhao said.

Officials from China and Solomon Islands have initialed, but not yet signed the security pact, which Australia, New Zealand, United States and some Pacific islands neighbours have criticised as undermining regional stability.

Australia-Solomons partnership

Australia is Solomon Islands’ top development partner and would allocate AUD$160 million (US$119 million) in support this year, Seselja said.

“We welcome recent statements from Prime Minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers,” he said.

Leaked memo

On Tuesday, a leaked memo surfaced on social media showing the Chinese government had told the Solomon Islands in December, it wanted to send a security team of 10 Chinese police with weapons to protect embassy staff in the wake of riots in Honiara in November.

The Solomon Islands government said on Wednesday no Chinese guns had entered the country other than a shipment of replica weapons used by Chinese police training officers.

U.S military leader warns regret

Senior U.S Marine commandant, General David Berger has warned that China’s offer to deepen security ties with Solomon Islands will come with strings attached, suggesting the Pacific island country may come to regret the planned deal.

Berger said on Wednesday whilst in Canberra, the U.S needed to show humility in its outreach to Pacific nations, but also needed to be open about the potential long-term consequences.

He reflected on the fight for control of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands during the second world war, when the U.S and allies sought to prevent Japanese forces from gaining a foothold in the strategically important location.

He said the proposed agreement was “just another example” of China seeking to broaden and expand its influence. He raised concerns about “the way that [it] happens and the consequences for the nations” involved.

Sogavare has argued Solomon Islands pursues a “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy, but Berger implied countries making agreements with Beijing might regret it down the track.

“We should illuminate, we should draw out into the open what this means long term… This is, in other words, an extension of ‘hey we’re here with a cheque, we’re here with money, we’d like to improve your port or your airfield or your bus station’. And that just sounds so great, until a year later or six months later, says Berger.