Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged economic and technical aid with “no political preconditions” for Solomon Islands – Beijing’s first close security partner in the strategically important South Pacific.

Meeting Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing on Monday, Xi said: “Although our friendship arrived belatedly, it is leading the way in relations between China and the Pacific Islands.”

“China supports more Chinese enterprises to invest in Solomon Islands and will continue to provide economic and technical assistance with no political preconditions,” Xi said.

He said China was willing to share in the development of the Pacific nation and in the opportunities brought by modernisation, “expand cooperation in all sectors … and assist Solomon Islands to revive development and achieve long-term stability”.

Xi and Sogavare also announced the setting up of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and signed a joint statement for “mutual respect and co-development”.

“Developing diplomatic ties was the right choice … China has become the largest infrastructure partner of Solomon Islands and a reliable partner for development,” PM Sogavare said.

Soon after Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing four years ago, it joined the Belt and Road Initiative – Beijing’s flagship multinational infrastructure strategy under which it offers loans and invests in projects like railways, highways and ports.

Sogavare, who led the switch soon after coming to power in April 2019, will also open his country’s embassy in Beijing later this week.

This is Sogavare’s second visit to China, but the first since the signing of a landmark bilateral security deal last year that had provoked strong rebukes from the United States and its South Pacific allies, Australia and New Zealand.

He arrived on Sunday for a weeklong, Chinese-funded trip aimed at “further strengthening bilateral ties”, an official statement from his government said.

After meetings with senior officials, Sogavare will visit Chinese enterprises in Beijing and later travel with his delegation to the economically powerful coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Guangdong. Guangdong set up a sister-province relationship with Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomons, in May.

The state visit is also the latest sign of closer bilateral economic and trade cooperation, after last year’s security pact paved the way for Chinese police to take an increasing role in training and equipping the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

The U.S and its allies reacted strongly to the deal over concerns about Beijing’s naval ambitions in the strategically located region with decades of strong American military presence, especially given the secrecy over the details of the agreement.

The “lack of transparency”, as the U.S put it, has added to worries that China might be able to station military equipment or personnel, or even set up a military base, in the Pacific Islands.

Honiara has sought to dispel those fears, saying last year it would not allow a Chinese military base on its soil and was “conscious of security ramifications”.

About a week before Sogavare’s trip to China, Australian deputy prime minister and defence minister Richard Marles visited the Solomons for security talks, and emphasised “the deepening partnership between our two countries”.

Australia has been the Solomons’ largest aid donor and the two countries also have a decades-old security relationship, including a mechanism for Australian police and defence personnel to deploy rapidly if need be.

China has continued to invest financially in Solomon Islands, prompting the United States to rekindle its engagement with the region, including reopening its embassy in Honiara and boosting investment efforts.

Sogavare last visited China in October 2019, a month after the switching of ties. State-held China Railway had then promised help to build facilities for this year’s Pacific Games, to be hosted by the Solomons over November and December.

China’s Huawei Technologies and contractor China Harbour Engineering are also building 161 mobile telecoms towers in the islands under a deal last year involving a loan of US$66 million from Beijing.