Solomons PM says backlash to security negotiations with China ‘very insulting’

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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the backlash to his country’s security negotiations with China was “very insulting”, in his first comments on a security treaty he said was being finalised.

Sogavare told his parliament on Tuesday a leaked security document with China was a draft and he would not give details on the content of the deal.

“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” he said. The islands switched diplomatic allegiance to mainland China from Taiwan in 2019.

Australia, New Zealand and the United States have expressed concern about the potential for a security pact between the Pacific island and China after a leaked draft showed it would cover Chinese navy vessels.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday it was a “potential militarisation of the region”, and Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton said Canberra would be concerned if the deal led to a Chinese military base in the Pacific.

In a speech to parliament, Sogavare expressed criticism of larger countries who he said didn’t care if Pacific islands went under water because of climate change and considered the region “the backyard of big Western powers”.

He also denied opposition claims that a security pact with China would lead to an autocratic government.

After media reports that Sogavare wants to postpone by a year national elections due in 2023, governor general David Vunagi told parliament on Monday the election can only be delayed by changing the constitution. Constitutional change had to be approved by parliament, he said.

Riots in November that killed four people and led to 1,000 job losses were sparked by anti-government protesters. read more

Australia provided immediate police assistance to Sogavare to restore order under a 2017 security treaty, and New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea later also sent police.

The opposition has accused Sogavare of using a new police pact with China, and striking a security deal, to prop up his leadership.

During last year’s riots, Sogavare said Chinatown was burned down and there were also threats to sports infrastructure being built to host the 2023 Pacific Games.

He said infrastructure gifted to Solomon Islands must be protected, a reference to seven stadiums being built by China in a deal struck after the islands switched diplomatic allegiance.

“If any country does not have the political appetite to do that, we must have an alternative arrangement in place,” he said.

The leaked draft said the security treaty would cover China’s armed police and the military protecting Chinese projects.

Sogavare rejected suggestions that China’s presence was a security threat to the region.

He said the Pacific islands nation would not “pick sides” and the security treaty with Australia would remain in place.

Sogavare said he had sent a text message to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the matter and also had written him a letter on Tuesday morning, as well as explaining the Solomons’ position to the Pacific Islands Forum, the main regional group for political and economic policy cooperation.

He said the Melanesian nation seeks “cooperation and understanding” concerning its security needs.

Sogavare said the Solomon Islands will not forget the assistance of the government and people of Australia and New Zealand.

He said the long-time partners will “remain close in our hearts” as partners of choice in difficult times.

But he said the two nations need to understand the needs of the Solomon Islands.

He said Pacific countries have a collective duty to keep the region safe.

“And discussions in the Australian public media encouraging an invasion into the Solomon Islands to force a regime change does nothing to strengthen our bilateral relations.

When a helpless mouse is concerned by vicious cats it will do anything to survive,” PM Sogavare said.

SOURCE: REUTERS/RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS