China, Solomon Islands elevate ‘strategic’ ties

China and Solomon Islands
Visiting Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, right, and his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 10, 2023 [Andy Wong/Reuters]

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced the launch of a comprehensive strategic partnership on Monday afternoon, a year after striking a security deal that set off a scramble from the United States and its allies to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific Islands region.

Sogavare had arrived in Beijing on Sunday. He also met with China’s Premier Li Qiang, with whom he presided over the signing of fresh agreements on police, economic and technical cooperation.

“We are here to further boost relations,” Sogavare told Li following a ceremony at which a Chinese military band played the Solomon Islands’ national anthem.

The Solomon Islands, 2,000km (1,243 miles) northeast of Australia, has been China’s biggest success in a campaign to expand its presence in the South Pacific. Sogavare’s government switched official recognition in 2019 to Beijing from Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy claimed by the mainland’s ruling Communist Party as part of its territory.

“Solomon Islands, sir, has a lot to learn from China’s development experience,” Sogavare told Li.

The two governments “have decided to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual respect and common development”, Li said. “The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands has developed rapidly, and we can now say that it is very fruitful.”

This marks the latest move in an increasingly tense geopolitical battle between China and the United States as they seek to gain influence among the Pacific nations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a 10-day tour of eight Pacific nations in May 2022, including Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

The US administration responded by announcing plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands. US President Joe Biden convened a summit of Pacific Island leaders in September to unveil a strategy that included climate change, maritime security and preventing overfishing. Biden promised $810m in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130m to address the effects of climate change.

US concerned by security pact

China first announced it had signed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands in April 2022. Neither side has revealed the details of the deal, but a leaked draft of the agreement had suggested that it might allow China to post troops in the Pacific nation, sparking fears among sections of society there and the West that it could presage a Chinese military base in the strategically located archipelago, the site of fierce fighting in World War II.

Sogavare has repeatedly said he does not intend to allow China to build a military base there.

Internal emails at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) obtained by Al Jazeera via a freedom of information request revealed how concerned officials scrambled to respond to reports earlier this year that Beijing was seeking to bolster security ties with the Pacific Island nation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies