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China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a 2019 welcome ceremony in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

SYDNEY — The leader of the Solomon Islands announced Wednesday that his country signed a security agreement with China, just days before a top American official was due to visit the Pacific nation in an attempt to scupper the controversial pact.

The announcement, which follows the leak of a draft of the agreement last month, renewed fear from local opposition leaders as well as Pacific countries including Australia, New Zealand and the United States that the deal could lead to a Chinese military presence in the islands and increase tensions in the region.

Speaking to Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare dismissed those concerns and insisted the agreement would “beef up” the police’s ability to respond to crises such as the riots in November that killed four people and destroyed much of the capital, including many Chinese-owned stores.

‘Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive

“Let me assure the people that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” Sogavare said. “We have full understanding of the fragility of peace, and our duty as a state is to protect all people, their property and critical national infrastructures.”

But opposition leader Matthew Wale said he didn’t believe the prime minister’s promise that the deal wouldn’t lead to a Chinese base in the country.

“I think this is the beginning of something more serious to come in this region,” he told The Washington Post, adding that he feared Chinese military personnel could arrive in the country within a few weeks.

The security deal is the first of its kind for China in the Indo-Pacific, experts said.

Despite the leaked draft and the “initialing” of the agreement last month, American officials appeared caught off-guard on Tuesday when China said the agreement had been signed. The announcement came hours after the White House confirmed that Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, would be visiting the Solomon Islands and two other countries in the region this week.

The Solomon Islands, which sits in a strategic but politically volatile part of the world and is perhaps best known for the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, has been at the heart of a geopolitical tug of war since it changed diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. “The Switch,” as the decision is known, underlined Beijing’s expanding influence in a region traditionally dominated by the United States and Australia.

Wale said he believed the agreement was going to be completed in mid-May, but it was accelerated so it could be signed before Campbell’s visit.

Shortly after China’s announcement, Campbell met in Hawaii with the U.S. Navy commander for the region as well as senior officials from Australia, Japan and New Zealand to discuss the security deal and “its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.

New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, called the agreement “unwelcome and unnecessary.”

“New Zealand has a long-term security partnership with Solomon Islands, and I am saddened that Solomon Islands has chosen nonetheless to pursue a security agreement outside the region,” she said in a statement. “While such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, we have made clear to both Solomon Islands and China our grave concerns at the agreement’s potential to destabilize the Pacific region’s security.”

Concerns are particularly acute in Australia, which is about 1,000 miles from the Solomon Islands and has been the target of a Chinese trade war. Faced with an increasingly assertive Chinese military in the region, Australia struck a pact with the United States and the United Kingdom in September to obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

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The most strident reaction Down Under came from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

“We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast,” he told reporters. “That is not what is good for this nation, not what is good for this region.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, rebuffed his characterization, saying Sogavare had made it “very clear” China would not build a base in the Solomon Islands. But Morrison said the agreement showed “the risk of China seeking to interfere within our region.”

The Solomon Islands’ diplomatic U-turn to China away from Taiwan — and accusations of associated bribes — angered many in the archipelago and, combined with long-standing local grievances, led to widespread rioting in November that left four people dead and much of the capital of Honiara burned to the ground.

Wale, the opposition leader, said he worried the security agreement would lead to a crackdown on the country’s most populous province, Malaita — where there is strong opposition to the Switch — and a return to the violence that claimed about 200 lives from 1998 to 2003 before Australia intervened.

“Malaita sees itself now as a target of this deal, and therefore how it is going to respond will have implications for stability and unity,” Wale said, adding that Sogavare wanted to “bring the province to his altar for worship.”

Wale also said elements of the local police were unhappy over the agreement, which could lead to “division.”

The security deal could have a domestic impact in Australia, which is in the middle of a six-week federal election campaign. Wale said he had warned Australia about the agreement last year but the country was slow to react — a claim Australian officials have denied.

“Australia definitely dropped the ball,” Wale said.

On Wednesday, Australian Sen. Penny Wong, shadow foreign minister for the opposition Labor Party, criticized the conservative coalition government for not doing more to prevent the agreement, which she called “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.”

In his announcement Tuesday, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sniped at the United States for “all of a sudden” planning to send senior officials to the region. The deal involved cooperation on “maintenance of social order,” humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response, he said, and was “open, transparent and inclusive.”

But when Wale asked Sogavare in Parliament on Wednesday to share the text of the agreement, the prime minister said he would have to consult China, which typically does not reveal details of its security deals.

“Obviously, that’s a no,” Wale said.

The agreement has “hit a soft spot” for the United States, which as a maritime power had hoped to use the “third island chain” as a way of trapping China, Xue Xiaorong, a scholar at Fudan University, said in an article published last week, referring to a Cold War-era U.S. strategy to contain its Pacific rivals. The United States losing influence in the Solomon Islands could set off a “domino effect” in the region, he said.

In a sign of the Solomon Islands’ renewed importance, the United States announced in February it would reopen its long-shuttered embassy in Honiara.

Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said the agreement showed Australia and the United States needed to change their approaches to the region.

“Kurt Campbell should call Sogavare’s bluff that he seeks the security agreement because he wants to diversify the Solomons’ security partners, and invite the Solomons to sign a security agreement with the U.S.,” she said.

But Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, said the United States would be better off trying to boost the country’s economy.

“The U.S. in the Pacific really needs to present a positive path forward for engagement with the region, but also one that is underpinned by economic development and economic partnerships,” he said.

Christian Shepherd and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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