China says it has signed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands, just hours after the United States announced it was sending officials to the South Pacific nation amid concerns Beijing could establish a military foothold there.
A provision of a draft version of the agreement, which leaked last month, raised alarm as it allowed Chinese security and naval deployments to the Solomon Islands, a country of about 700,000 people that in recent months has faced political and social unrest.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday “the foreign ministers of China and the Solomon Islands officially signed the framework agreement on security cooperation recently”, without providing details on the final version of the agreement.
According to the leaked draft, armed Chinese police could be deployed at the Solomon Islands’ request to maintain “social order”, although Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has repeatedly said he does not intend to allow China to build a military base there.
The words have done little to allay US concerns.
“The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC [People’s Republic of China] military forces to the Solomon Islands,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.
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.
During the visit, officials plan to discuss reopening the US embassy in the capital, Honiara. Washington did not immediately respond to Tuesday’s announcement that the deal had been signed.
The planned US trip comes after Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja travelled to Honiara earlier in April to ask the prime minister in person not to sign the deal.
The latest announcement comes as the US and its regional allies have sought to counter what they call China’s increasingly assertive actions in the Pacific, particularly in its territorial claims over portions of the South China Sea and actions towards Taiwan.
Speaking on Tuesday, China’s Wang accused Western powers of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact.
Security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands is “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries,” he said.
The Solomon Islands only recognised Beijing in 2019 after switching its ties from Taiwan, the self-governing island China considers a breakaway province.
Surging unemployment and opposition to Sogavare’s leadership have sparked mass unrest in the country.
In November, protesters tried to storm the parliament during several days of deadly rioting.