U.S warns Solomon Islands of action over pact with China

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The Biden administration on Friday warned the Solomon Islands that the United States will take unspecified action against the South Pacific nation should its recently concluded cooperation agreement with China pose a threat to U.S or allied interests.

The White House said the message was delivered directly to the country’s leadership by a visiting senior U.S delegation.

The delegation expressed concern that the deal with China raises questions about its scope and purpose, according to the White House, which also lamented transparency in the agreement and cast doubt on Solomon Islands’ officials’ claims that the deal was purely domestic.

The visit came just days after China and the Solomons confirmed they had signed a security pact, a development that has alarmed neighboring countries and Western allies who fear a military buildup in the region.

“Solomon Islands representatives indicated that the agreement had solely domestic applications, but the U.S. delegation noted there are potential regional security implications of the accord, including for the United States and its allies and partners,” the White House said in a statement.

“The U.S delegation outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose, scope, and transparency of the agreement,” it said. “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.”

There was no indication of what the U.S. response might be.

The White House statement noted that Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had assured the U.S. there would be no long-term Chinese presence on the islands and no power projection capability but stressed that the U.S. would “follow developments closely in consultation with regional partners.”

A draft of the pact, which was leaked online, said Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment and China could send police and armed forces there “to assist in maintaining social order.” The Solomons and China have not released the final version of the agreement.

In a bid to deal with the matter, the U.S proposed, and the Solomon Islands accepted, a proposal to launch a high-level strategic dialogue that would address mutual concerns. The U.S delegation was led by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

During the visit, the U.S side also discussed its plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomons capital of Honiara, as it tries to increase its presence in the strategically important country amid growing concerns about Chinese influence. The embassy has been closed since 1993.

On Saturday the Australian treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, refused to be drawn on when the government became aware of the agreement.

It had been reported by the Nine newspapers earlier last week that Australian intelligence agencies first became aware in March, and played a role in leaking the draft of the agreement online.

But the failure of the Morrison government to prevent the deal has been described by the opposition Labor party as the most significant foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the second world war.

Frydenberg would not say when Australia first knew of the pact between the Solomon Islands and China, saying instead that “we’ve known that this was always a risk”, adding that “we’ve known that there were discussions under way”.

He also told Weekend Sunrise that the government could do little more to assist Solomon Islands, describing its existing aid as a “full court press”.

The Coalition government continued to try and use the issue to paint Labor as soft on China, with Frydenberg describing a speech by Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, in 2019 as the “biggest story” of the day.

Marles – who was campaigning alongside Jim Chalmers in Brisbane due to Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s infection with Covid – confirmed reports he had shown Chinese government officials a copy of a speech he gave at a Beijing university in 2019.

“I made a speech in China where I criticised China and I wanted to make sure that the Chinese government were not at all surprised with what I was going to say,” Marles said.

“The assertion made by the government is another desperate attempt to divert from their failings in the Pacific.”

Senior Labor MP Tanya Plibersek said on Saturday that Solomon Islands’ security pact followed “years of neglect” by the Australian government.

Asked what Labor would have done differently from the Coalition, she said: “We wouldn’t have trashed the relationship with our Pacific neighbours in the first place.

“It is inexplicable that, having been warned about this, [prime minister] Scott Morrison didn’t say to his foreign minister, Marise Payne, I want you on the first plane to the Solomon Islands to talk this through.”

The reaction to the deal in the Solomons has been mixed.

Peter Kenilorea, the chair of the Solomon Islands’ parliament’s foreign relations committee and an opposition MP, described the agreement as only benefiting China.

During a forum hosted last week, Kenilorea also questioned Sogavare’s contention that his government was entitled to reach the agreement as it was a sovereign decision.

“I don’t think is a path we should take or that it is a path would benefit Solomon Islands,” he said. “I think the biggest winner here will be the People’s Republic of China, in terms of a foothold in the Pacific region.”

He went on to say that “when it comes to security, especially in this heightened geopolitical environment, it is more than a national issue … the region is impacted, there are implications”.

Another participant in the forum, leading Solomon Islands academic Dr Transform Aqorau, said it was concerning that no one outside the government had seen a copy of the signed agreement or been provided with any detail of its content, but said he did not see anything wrong with an agreement that bolstered the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF).

But former Solomon Islands prime minister and current MP Danny Philip told the same forum that the agreement would help ensure Chinese assets were protected in the country, after Australian security forces that were deployed there failed to do so. His claims were rejected by Australian authorities.

SOURCE: AP/THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS