Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has lavished praise on China during his visit to the country, declaring that Beijing has no “strategic interests” in the Pacific and suggesting the emerging great power has been unfairly tarred by the West.
The two countries have officially elevated their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” during Sogavare’s week-long trip to China, and have signed a host of new pacts — including an “implementation” plan for a police cooperation agreement inked last year.
It comes as China moves to expand police training in Solomon Islands, and in the wake of several high-profile donations of equipment to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force from the Chinese embassy — including riot gear, water cannon trucks and motorcycles.
Both the United States and Australia have called on Solomon Islands and China to publicly release the full version of all the police agreements, as well as a broader security pact they signed last year, stoking alarm in both Washington and Canberra.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that releasing the police agreement text would boost transparency, while suggesting that China’s expanding security cooperation with Solomon Islands undermined the “family first” approach to security endorsed by Pacific Island Forum leaders.
“We all know there’s strategic competition in our region. And one of the ways that needs to be managed in the context of the Pacific region, is for Pacific institutions — the centre of which is the Pacific Islands Forum — to be respected,” she said.
“And at recent forums you’ve seen leaders reassert the importance of the family first, the Pacific family first, approach to security. That matters for stability.”
The foreign minister also said Australia would seek to raise the issue at the next meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders later this year in Cook Islands.
Solomon Islands has been hit with periodic bouts of instability, and Australia sent in police and ADF personnel to help restore order in late 2021 after riots hit the capital Honiara.
Both U.S and Australian officials are concerned about China’s police training mission in Solomon Islands, and worry that Beijing may press to send police into the country if Chinese-owned businesses or projects are threatened by future unrest.
But Sogavare told Phoenix TV in Beijing that Solomon Islands was making sovereign decisions in its own national interest.
“We are fully aware of what other countries are doing and saying, but we continue to strengthen our relationship with China,” he said.
“Solomon Islands and other Pacific Island countries are not the backyard of any country.
“We are a sovereign nation capable of making our own decisions … and we see partnership with your great nation China is the way to go forward.”
Sogavare continues to boost ties with Beijing, despite some Pacific leaders being concerned about the nature of China’s interests in the region.
The United States has repeatedly accused China of trying to expand its surveillance and security footprint overseas, but Sogavare suggested Western criticisms of Beijing were unfair.
“It’s really unfortunate … all the nonsense we are hearing is a misunderstanding of what China is doing,” he said.
“China has no other strategic interests other than Taiwan and of course the South China Sea.
“Any country in the world will not be comfortable if you start to intrude into areas seen as existential threat … and China is no different.”
Mihai Sora from the Lowy Institute said Sogavare was a “deft politician” who was “playing to his hosts” — much like he did on his trip to Australia last year.
“Recall that when Sogavare was in Australia late last year, he said ‘Australia was Solomon Islands’s security partner of choice,’ a sentiment official in Canberra were dying to hear come out of Sogavare’s mouth at that time,” he said.
But Sora said it wasn’t easy to gauge the significance of the prime minister’s latest remarks.
“Sometimes it is difficult to parse diplomatic signalling from political marketing. But the reality on the ground right now is that China has an increasing stake in Solomon Island’s policing,” he said.
“This remains a source of tension in geopolitical dynamics in the Pacific, and also a source of concern in Solomon Islands communities.”
Anna Powles from Massey University said Sogavare’s comments about Taiwan and the South China Sea were “in line with Beijing’s talking points”.
“Sogavare and other Pacific leaders have been consistently clear that China is a development partner to the Pacific who brings significant opportunities,” she said.
“However, a number of Pacific leaders were sufficiently concerned about the nature and scope of China’s interests in the Pacific last year and rejected Beijing’s proposed Common Development Vision.”
The United States embassy in Canberra told the ABC that the United States “respects the ability of nations to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people” but still raised questions about the police cooperation agreement.
“We encourage the parties to release these texts immediately to increase transparency and inform discussions about the impacts of these agreements on regional security,” an embassy spokesperson said.
“In general, we have concerns over the expansion of the PRC’s internal security and surveillance apparatus beyond its own borders.”
A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry wouldn’t say if the police agreement would be publicly released, simply saying the pact was “in line with relevant international law and common practice”.
“China firmly supports Solomon Islands in achieving long-term peace and stability and will continue to provide support and assistance to the best of our capacity on the basis of the will and needs of Solomon Islands,” they said.
SOURCE: ABC PACIFIC/PACNEWS