The Australian government has sounded the alarm about the newly-signed security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, arguing the pact has been negotiated in secret and could “undermine stability in our region”.
The government said it was “deeply disappointed” by the signing of the deal, first announced by China on Tuesday, and would “seek further clarity on the terms of the agreement, and its consequences for the Pacific region”.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region,” two Australian ministers said in a statement late on Tuesday.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Australia would “continue to strongly encourage the Solomon Islands to engage in regional dialogue and to work with the Pacific family first, including prior to seeking security assistance from China under this arrangement”.
Seselja took time out of the Australian federal election campaign last week to visit Honiara and to ask Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare “respectfully” to consider not signing the proposed security agreement with China. His efforts appear to have failed to prevent the deal from proceeding.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, accused the Australian prime minister of acting too slowly on a matter of significance to regional security.
“Despite all of his tough talk, on Scott Morrison’s watch our region has become less secure,” Wong tweeted on Tuesday evening.
The announcement is set to heighten the concerns of Australia, the United States and New Zealand about growing Chinese influence in the Pacific. A high-level US delegation was due to travel to Honiara this week.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on Tuesday that the framework pact was recently signed by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and the foreign minister of Solomon Islands, Jeremiah Manele.
He did not give details of where, or precisely when, the signing took place.
The Chinese embassy in Honiara also confirmed to the Guardian that the document had been signed.
The Australian government is concerned that the pact, details of which have not been made officially public, could be a step towards a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km from Australia.
A draft version of the agreement, leaked last month, sent shock waves across the region over provisions allowing Chinese security and naval deployments to the crisis-hit Pacific island nation.
According to the draft, armed Chinese police could be deployed at Solomon Islands’ request to maintain “social order”.
Sogavare’s assurances that he does not intend to allow China to build a military base there has done little to alleviate the concerns.
Earlier on Tuesday the Pacific islands nation’s parliament was told that China would send officials to Solomon Islands next month to sign cooperation pacts.
Although the Chinese embassy and Solomon Islands officials had previously initialled the security pact, ministers had not yet signed it.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS