China said Tuesday it has sealed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands, an agreement the United States and its regional allies fear could give Beijing a military foothold in the South Pacific.
The confirmation came a day after Washington discouraged a security agreement between the countries, with top US diplomats headed to the South Pacific this week to curb Beijing’s inroads.
But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Tuesday: “The foreign ministers of China and the Solomon Islands officially signed the framework agreement on security cooperation recently.”
He did not say when or where the signing took place.
A draft version of the agreement leaked last month rattled Western governments, with provisions allowing for Chinese security and naval deployments to the crisis-hit Pacific island nation.
According to the draft, armed Chinese police could be deployed at the Solomon Islands’ request to maintain “social order”.
Australia said Tuesday it was “deeply disappointed” by the signing of the deal.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region,” said a joint statement by Australian foreign minister Marise Payne and Pacific minister Zed Seselja.
Earlier this month, Seselja travelled to Honiara, the former British protectorate’s capital, to ask the prime minister in person not to ink the deal.
Australia is worried the agreement could see Beijing establish a military presence less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away.
Wang on Tuesday accused Western powers of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact, and questioned the motives behind US officials’ upcoming visit.
The security deal represents a “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries,” Wang said.
“Attempts to interfere and obstruct the cooperation of island countries with China are… doomed to fail,” he added at a regular press briefing.
– ‘Broad nature’ –
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s assurances that he does not intend to allow China to build a military base there has done little to alleviate Western concerns.
“The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC military forces to the Solomon Islands,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday, referring to China.
The signing of the pact “could increase destabilisation within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region,” he added.
The White House’s high-level delegation to the Solomons is expected to discuss its concerns, as well as the reopening of the US embassy in Honiara.
The US and its Asian allies have voiced growing concern about China’s assertiveness in the Pacific, where it is locked in several territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.
The Solomon Islands’ switch of diplomatic recognition from self-ruled Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 unlocked huge amounts of Chinese investment, but the issue has been fraught with tensions.
The island nation of 800,000 has been wracked by political and social unrest, and many of its people live in poverty.
In November, protesters tried to storm the parliament and went on a deadly three-day rampage, torching much of Honiara’s Chinatown.
The unrest was sparked by a range of tensions, including opposition to Sogavare’s rule, inter-island rivalries and high unemployment, while anti-China sentiment also played a role.