Solomon confirms security talks with China; Australia and New Zealand concerned

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton responds during a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, December 13, 2021. Lucas Koch/Paul via Reuters

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SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Solomon Islands confirmed Friday that it is partnering with China to address security threats and ensure a safe investment environment as it diversifies security relations.

A security pact with the Pacific island nation would be a major breakthrough for China in an area that US allies Australia and New Zealand have for decades considered their “backyard”.

Both expressed concern about the impact of military cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands on regional security after a draft document outlining the proposed cooperation was leaked this week.

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In its first public comment on the matter, the Solomon Islands government said: “Expanding partnerships is essential to improving the quality of life of our people and addressing the soft and hard security threats facing the country.”

It said in a statement that it “diversifies the country’s security partnership, including with China” and is working to sign a number of agreements with it “to further create a safe and secure environment for domestic and foreign investments.”

An official in the Solomon Islands told Reuters on Thursday that the security agreement with China covering the military would be sent to the cabinet for consideration. The Solomon Islands have already signed a police agreement with China. Read more

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Solomon Islands said the arrangement would cover humanitarian needs along with maintaining the rule of law, adding that it needed to rebuild its economy after the recent riots and would sign an air services agreement with China and increase trade.

She added that a security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, as the Solomon Islands worked to deepen ties with China, would be preserved.

Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Sesilga said Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavary had been informed of Australia’s concerns about talks with China, and Canberra predicted there would be a “significant dip in the region”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting on the issue earlier on Friday, said Australia and New Zealand are part of the “Pacific family” and have a history of providing security support and crisis response.

“There are others who may seek to pretend influence and may seek to gain some kind of control in the region, and we are fully aware of that,” he told reporters.

“unstable influences”

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told ABC Radio that the proposed agreement was “one of the most significant security developments we have seen in decades and is contrary to Australia’s national security interests”.

The Pacific island nation of less than 1 million people, 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, shifted diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, signaling China’s growing influence in the Pacific.

New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaya Mahuta, said in a statement that Pacific partners must be transparent in their actions.

“Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into them,” she said.

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“However, developments in this so-called agreement could destabilize existing institutions and arrangements that have long promoted the security of the Pacific.”

Australia and New Zealand have police in the Solomon Islands, part of a multinational unit called by Sugavari to restore order after the November riots.

The Solomon Islands citizen who posted online the leaked draft of the security agreement told Reuters that the document came from a police source.

It covers assisting the Chinese police and military in social order, disaster response, and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said any move to establish a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands would be a cause for concern.

“We want peace and stability in the region,” Dutton told Channel Nine. “We don’t want worrying effects and we don’t want the pressure and coercion we’re seeing from China.”

The United States said last month it would open a US embassy in Honiara amid concerns that China was seeking to strengthen military ties there. Read more

In Beijing on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called on relevant parties to consider the security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands “objectively and calmly and not to over-interpret.”

He was responding to a question about the new security agreement raised at a regular media briefing.

“Some politicians from the Australian side spread some fallacies about the so-called ‘Chinese coercion’ and deliberately created an atmosphere of tension, which is very irresponsible and not conducive to regional stability and development,” Wang added.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lucy Cramer) Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista in Beijing. Editing by Robert Percell and Clarence Fernandez

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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