WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – To counter international fears over its new security alliance with China, the Solomon Islands said on Friday it would not allow China to set up a military base there.
But that insistence will do little to allay concerns about the pact from the nation’s traditional partners, which include New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
The leader of neighboring Micronesia joined the fears, pointing to the bloody battles of World War II and warning that the pact could result in the South Pacific region once again becoming a battleground for much larger powers.
The Solomon Islands government said Thursday a draft treaty of the new security pact had been initialed by Solomon Islands and China officials and would be “cleaned up” and signed.
In a statement Friday, the Solomon Islands government said that “contrary to misinformation promoted by anti-government commentators,” the deal did not require China to set up a military base.
“The government recognizes the security implications of hosting a military base and will not be reckless in allowing such an initiative to take place under its authority,” the statement said.
The statement appeared to rule out the possibility of a base more forcefully, after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare previously told parliament he had no intention of asking China to build a base.
Sogavare said his nation seeks only peace and prosperity, citing its foreign policy mantra: “We are friends of all and enemies of none.” He said it was not a secret deal but a sovereign matter.
Under the terms of the draft deal, China could deploy police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomon Islands “to help maintain social order” and for a variety of other reasons. It could also send warships to the islands for stopovers and to replenish supplies, which had led to speculation about the possibility of China establishing a naval base in the South Pacific islands.
Micronesia’s President David Panuelo wrote a letter to Sogavare saying Micronesia had “serious security concerns” about the “novel and unprecedented” agreement.
He said the two small nations became battlegrounds during World War II and it could happen again if China, the US and Australia prevail in the region.
“And is it plausible that once the spheres are worked out, our concerns about climate change – the problem today – would manifest into all too real concerns about a war in our backyards, with our people, our islands, as the playground for children who, as… adults play?” Panuelo wrote to Sogavare.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said on Friday that while the deal respects Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, it shows China is aggressive in the region.
“We have to be very careful here because the Chinese are incredibly aggressive, the tactics they are using in small island nations are quite remarkable,” he told Sky News.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week described the possibility of Chinese forces stationing in the Solomon Islands as “potential militarization of the region”. And the US State Department said Washington does not believe China’s security forces and methods need to be exported.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday that “relevant parties should view the China-Solomon Islands security cooperation objectively and rationally and stop making irresponsible remarks.”
“Attempts to provoke, hamper and undermine China’s friendly relations with the island nations are not popular and will not succeed,” Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.
“The China-Solomon Islands cooperation is not aimed at third parties and is not inconsistent with Solomon Islands cooperation with other countries. Instead, it complements existing regional cooperation mechanisms in a positive way,” he added.
The Solomon Islands, home to about 700,000 people, switched its diplomatic affiliation from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 – a factor that contributed to unrest between residents of different islands in the country in November last year.
Australian police have since been based in the capital, Honiara, keeping the peace under a bilateral security agreement struck in 2017. It provides a legal basis for the rapid deployment of Australian Police, troops and associated civilians in the event of a major security challenge.
Chinese police are already on the islands conducting a training mission.
About 100,000 people live in the Federated States of Micronesia. It maintains diplomatic ties and considers itself a “friend” of China and has close ties with the US under a free association agreement.