Australia stands ready to help Solomon Islands build a military force, as Defence Minister Richard Marles seized the opportunity to hold talks with the nation’s new prime minister.

Marles has travelled to Honiara for high-level meetings as the Pacific nation transitions to a new government under the leadership of Jeremiah Manele.

The defence minister, who pledged $50 million for border management and a health centre on Tuesday, said Australia would help establish a military as previously put forward by former prime minister Manasseh Sogavare.

“If Solomon Islands wishes to walk down that path, we stand ready to assist Solomon Islands in the establishment of such course,” he said.

Marles said the government was “very open” to ensuring an ongoing presence of Australian police remained in Solomon Islands.

A security deal inked with Beijing in 2022 by Sogavare, who encouraged Chinese investment in the Pacific Island nation, alarmed Australia and the U.S.

Manele said his nation was ready to discuss a “much, much larger bilateral co-operation” with Canberra.

“Australia remains Solomon Islands’ partner of choice and I want to see our relationship grow to new heights during my tenure as prime minister,” he told Marles in his first meeting as leader, a statement read.

In addition to Manele, the defence minister met with deputy Bradley Tovosia and other top ministers.

A border management system delivered in partnership with Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons will get $3.2 million (US$2.33 million) to help visa processing and revenue collection through a new system.

A birthing and health centre in East Honiara will get $45 million (US$30 million) to support mothers accessing pre and post-natal care. Australia will also provide medical equipment and staff training.

Marles’ visit comes against the backdrop of heightened competition in the Pacific, with the Solomons being the first regional nation to sign a major policing pact with China.

Manele has indicated the pact would remain under his government.

Australia sought to be the Solomons’ go-to security partner and had to work to earn that right, Marles said.

Manele, the previous minister for foreign affairs, was elected prime minister on 02 May.

Pacific expert Tess Cain said hopes of returning to a time before Beijing signed a security pact were likely to be dashed, despite the new leader.

Friction points between Australia and the Solomons under Sogavare, partly due to his “more natural fieriness”, were likely to subside somewhat under Manele, Dr Cain said.