The Pacific island nation confirmed last week that it would expand its security relationship with China – alarming regional leaders wary of Beijing’s growing influence.
“We consider it extremely offensive to describe us as improper to manage our sovereign affairs,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari said in Parliament on Tuesday, addressing the international reaction. “Our security approach is not conducted in a vacuum and is not without due consideration for all our partners.”
“The security treaty is at the request of the Solomon Islands and we have not been pressured … in any way by our new friends,” he added. “We have no intention, Mr. President, to get involved in any geopolitical power struggle.”
He also criticized the Australian media over its reports of allegations that Beijing is planning to build a military base in the Solomon Islands – a possible precedent for China in the Pacific region that Canberra regards as its backyard.
In a statement on Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said the government is “working to sign and implement a number of development frameworks with China in order to create a safe environment for domestic and foreign investment.”
Sogavari further defended the move on Tuesday, telling parliament, “In moving towards our security needs, we need to diversify… We are a country with limited security capabilities and obviously we will need support constantly.”
But the potential arrangement has alarmed many countries, including the United States and Australia, who are becoming increasingly wary of the expansion of China’s assertive footprint in the region.
For decades, Australia has enjoyed powerful influence among the Pacific islands as a wealthy donor helping countries that depend on aid. But in recent years, China has also become a major player in the region, investing billions of dollars – making these tiny islands the center of a raging power struggle.
These tensions only escalated as China ramped up its naval capabilities and military islands in the South China Sea.
Australia has an existing security agreement with the Solomon Islands, active since 2018, which allows Australian police, defense and civilian personnel to rapidly deploy to the islands in the event of security threats.
The Solomon Islands government referred to this agreement in its statement on Friday, saying that it will “continue to maintain its security agreement with Australia while developing and deepening its relations with all partners including China”.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton on Friday expressed concern that any security arrangement with Beijing could eventually lead to China expanding its military presence in the region – a position reiterated on Monday by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Morrison told reporters that the arrangement “is of concern to the region,” but added that it was not a surprise. “We have always known about these pressures,” he said, adding that the recent development was “a reminder of the ongoing pressures and threats in our region to our national security.”
New Zealand also expressed its “strong condemnation” in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the potential partnership “threatens to destabilize existing institutions and arrangements that have ensured the security of the Pacific for so long.”
The Solomon Islands established diplomatic relations with Beijing only recently, with the government recognizing mainland China over Taiwan in 2019 – a decision for which the government faced pressure from citizens.
That was one of the issues that emerged during violent protests in the capital Honiara last November – when Australia deployed police and defense personnel to support local authorities.
During Sogavary’s remarks on Tuesday, he said that both New Zealand and Australia remain important bilateral partners, and that he wrote a letter and text messages to Morrison about the matter.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly respond to a question about the pending security agreement on Friday, but said that China and the Solomon Islands “are conducting normal law enforcement and security cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”
Additional reporting by CNN’s Simon McCarthy and Lizzie Yee.
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