HONIARA: The prime minister of the Solomon Islands on Tuesday rebuked Australian fears that a draft security pact between his country and China, leaked online last week, would “destabilize” the South Pacific.
In an impassioned speech, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he found it “deeply insulting… to be branded unfit to conduct our sovereign affairs or to have other motives to pursue our national interests”.
The proposals in the leaked draft agreement would allow for Chinese security and naval deployments to the Pacific island, a development that sent shockwaves through Canberra last week.
Sogavare said the pact has yet to be signed but confirmed that his government and colleagues in Beijing had agreed on the form of the deal, though he did not provide details.
While existing security arrangements with Australia “will remain,” Sogavare said that “to meet our security needs, it is clear that we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other countries — and what’s wrong with that?”
The prospect of a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific has long been a concern for Australia and the United States, as it would allow Beijing to project power deep into the region.
“We would be concerned about actions that destabilize the security of our region,” the Australian Foreign Office said in a statement last week.
But Sogavare labeled the concerns of “many leaders” about the presence of China threatening regional security in the Pacific as “unfortunate perceptions”.
The Solomon Islands were rocked by unrest last November as protesters attempted to storm parliament and then launched a deadly three-day frenzy that set fire to much of Chinatown in the capital Honiara.
More than 200 peacekeepers from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were deployed to restore calm and Sogavare avoided being deposed.
The riots were fueled by a range of tensions, including opposition to Sogavare’s rule, island rivalries and high unemployment, but anti-China sentiment also played a key role.
Leaders in the most populous island of Malaita vehemently oppose Sogavare’s decision to shift diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, a switch that became a lightning rod for wider frustration with Chinese investment in the Pacific island nation.