By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY -Amid a regional backlash, the Solomon Islands said it would not allow a Chinese military base in the Pacific islands nation despite its plans to sign a security pact with Beijing.
A day after officials from the two countries initialled a draft agreement on security, the office of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said on Friday the agreement does not invite China to establish a military base.
“Government is conscious of the security ramification of hosting a military base, and it will not be careless to allow such initiative to take place under its watch,” a statement said.
Sogavare has not released details of the security agreement with China, amid concern sparked by a leaked draft that allowed Chinese navy ships to replenish in the islands. Ministers have not yet signed it.
When asked about the most recent comments from the Solomon Islands, China’s foreign ministry said the “starting point” of the security agreement is to safeguard people’s safety and property security.
“It does not have any military overtones,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday.
“The relevant remarks and speculation in the media are groundless.”
Four people were killed during violent anti-government protests and much of the Chinatown neighborhood of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, was destroyed during violent anti-government protests in November.
The leader of the Federated States of Micronesia on Thursday urged the Solomon Islands not to sign the security pact, saying he had “grave security concerns” and feared the Pacific could become embroiled in war between China and the United States.
New Zealand has also warned against the pact, which it says could upset long-standing regional security cooperation. Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton on Friday said he respected Sogavare’s perspective but urged caution.
China had established 20 points of military presence in the South China Sea despite telling the United States it would not militarize the region, and Canberra feared Beijing was on a similar pathway in the Pacific islands, Dutton said in an interview with Sky News.
“They want a military port in PNG [Papua New Guinea]. They’ve got one in Sri Lanka, and they’re looking obviously at other places where they can put them,” he said.
China offered to redevelop a naval base in Papua New Guinea in 2018 but Australia’s closest northern neighbour decided to have Australia to develop the base instead.
A Chinese state company runs the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota under a 99-year lease, although Sri Lanka has previously said the port cannot be used for Chinese military purposes.
A Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands would prompt Australia to significantly increase its military deployment to the region because the islands are very close to Australia, Dutton said.
Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne said the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China would undermine stability in the region.
“We don’t believe that there is a need for countries outside the Pacific family to have a security role,” she said on local radio on Friday.