Australia official in Solomon Islands amid China worries

Visit comes amid concern a proposed security pact with Beijing will undermine regional security.

The national flags of Solomon Islands and China flutter at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
The Solomon Islands relationship with China has been a source of unease and a proposed new security pact has raised regional fears [File: Stringer/Reuters]

An Australian government minister has arrived in the Solomon Islands for talks amid concern about a proposed security agreement between the Pacific islands nation and China.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja landed in Honiara for two days of meetings with the support of Australia’s main opposition Labor Party.

He said the two-day visit would “further strengthen Australia’s relationship with Solomon Islands”.

“Australia will continue to be a transparent and respectful partner,” Seselja wrote on Twitter after arriving at Honiara’s airport.

A spokesperson for Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told the AFP news agency the Pacific nation’s leader would “love to meet” the Australian minister in Honiara.

A proposed security pact between China and Solomon Islands sent shockwaves through the Pacific when it was leaked last month. Australia, New Zealand, the United States and some Pacific islands neighbours have all criticised the agreement, which would allow Chinese security and naval deployments to the Solomon Islands, as undermining regional stability.

The leaked draft would allow armed Chinese police to be deployed at the archipelago’s request to maintain “social order”.

a China Police Liason Team officer (C) training local RSIPF officers in drill, unarmed combat skills
China Police Liason Team officer (centre) training Solomon Islands police officers (Photo handout by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force/AFP)

Without the written consent of the other party, neither would be allowed to disclose the missions publicly.

Sogavare has said his government has “no intention whatsoever … to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands”.

The country switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, a move that fuelled tension with the administration of Malaita, the Solomon Islands’s largest province. Last November, Honiara was rocked by rioting calling for Sogavare’s resignation, with the government calling on Australia to help quell the unrest.

Seselja’s visit follows talks last week in Honiara between Australian intelligence chiefs and Solomon Islands officials over the proposed China security pact.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also held discussions with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele about plans to reopen the US Embassy in the country as well as “joint efforts to broaden and deepen engagement between our countries in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region”, according to a statement late on Tuesday from the State Department.

Officials from China and Solomon Islands have not yet signed the security agreement.

On Tuesday, a leaked memo surfaced on social media showing the Chinese government had told the Solomon Islands in December that it wanted to send a 10-member security team with weapons, including a sniper rifle, machines guns and electronic listening devices to protect embassy staff in the wake of the riots in Honiara in November.

The memo was widely reported by Australian media.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies