China and Solomon Islands sign security deal, after US and Australian alarm

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SYDNEY — The leader of the Solomon Islands announced on Wednesday that his country had signed a security deal with China, just days before a senior US official traveled to the Pacific nation to try to scuttle the controversial pact.

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

Addressing parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare dismissed those concerns and insisted the deal would ‘strengthen’ the ability of the police to respond to crises such as the November riots that killed four people. and destroyed much of the capital, including many Chinese. owned stores.

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“Let me assure the people that we reached an agreement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” Sogavare said. “We fully understand the fragility of peace, and our duty as a state is to protect all people, their property and critical national infrastructure.”

But Opposition Leader Matthew Wale said he did not believe the prime minister’s promise that the deal would not lead to a Chinese base in the country.

“I think this is the start 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 from here. a few weeks.

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

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

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

Wale said he thought the deal was going to close in mid-May, but it was fast-tracked so it could be signed before Campbell’s visit.

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

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta called the deal “unwelcome and unnecessary”.

“New Zealand has a long-term security partnership with the Solomon Islands, and I am saddened that the Solomon Islands has nevertheless chosen to pursue a security arrangement outside the region,” she said in a statement. communicated. “While such agreements are always the right of any sovereign country to enter into, we have made clear to the Solomon Islands and China our serious concerns about the potential of the agreement to destabilize the security of the Pacific region. “

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 army in the region, Australia in September concluded a pact with the United States and the United Kingdom 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’s not what’s good for this nation, that’s not what’s good for this region.”

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

The Solomon Islands’ diplomatic backlash to China away from Taiwan – and accusations of associated bribes – has angered many islanders and, combined with long-standing local grievances, has led to widespread rioting in November that left four people dead and much of the capital of Honiara burnt down.

Wale, the opposition leader, said he feared the security deal could lead to a crackdown on the country’s most populous province, Malaita – where there is strong opposition to the Switch – and a return of the violence that claimed an estimated 200 lives from 1998 to 2003. before Australia intervened.

“Malaita now sees himself as a target of this deal, and so how he responds will have implications for stability and unity,” Wale said, adding that Sogavare wanted to “bring the province to its altar for worship. “.

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

The security deal could have a national impact in Australia, which is in the midst of a six-week federal election campaign. Wale said he warned Australia about the deal last year, but the country was slow to respond – a claim denied by Australian officials.

“Australia definitely dropped the ball,” Wale said.

On Wednesday, Australian Senator Penny Wong, shadow foreign minister for the opposition Labor Party, slammed the Conservative coalition government for not doing more to prevent the deal, which she called “the world’s worst failure”. Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of the Second World War.

In his Tuesday announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin fired at the United States for “all of a sudden” planning to send senior officials to the region. The agreement involved cooperation on “maintenance of social order”, humanitarian aid and response to natural disasters, he said, and was “open, transparent and inclusive”.

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

“Obviously it’s a no,” Wale said.

The deal “hit a weak spot” for the United States, which as a sea power had hoped to use the “third island chain” as a way to ensnare China, said Xue Xiaorong, a researcher at the ‘Fudan University, in a published article. last week, referring to a Cold War-era US strategy to contain its Pacific rivals. The loss of US influence in the Solomon Islands could trigger a “domino effect” in the region, he said.

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

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

“Kurt Campbell should call Sogavare’s bluff that he is seeking the security deal because he wants to diversify the Solomons’ security partners and invite the Solomons to sign a security deal with the United States,” he said. she declared.

But Mihai Sora, a researcher at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, said the United States had better try to stimulate the country’s economy.

“America in the Pacific really needs to present a positive path for engagement with the region, but also a path 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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