By Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer
SYDNEY -A security pact between the Solomon Islands and China will not undermine peace, the prime minister of the Pacific island nation told parliament on Wednesday in a bid to ease the worries of the United States and its allies about China’s growing influence.
The security pact is a major inroad for China in the resource-rich Pacific, where the United States has long held sway and which its allies, Australia and New Zealand, have for decades seen as their “backyard”.
The Solomon Islands said last month it was creating the partnership with China to tackle security threats and ensure a safe environment for investment as it diversifies its security relations.
“I ask all our neighbours, friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of the Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told parliament.
The Solomons has faced a flurry of calls from Western countries and neighbours not to go ahead with the pact.
Australia is concerned it could open the door to a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away.
But Sogavare confirmed that the pact had been sealed by foreign ministers from the two countries, a day after China announced the unexpectedly hasty signing.
The confirmation comes days before a White House delegation led by Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell is due to arrive in the capital, Honiara.
On Wednesday, Campbell met Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, in Suva to discuss regional security, the U.S. embassy said. He will also travel to Papua New Guinea.
The United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia shared concerns about the security pact with China “and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the White House said earlier.
New Zealand had made clear to both the Solomon Islands and China its grave concerns that the pact could destabilise the Pacific, its foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the agreement called for China to help the Solomon Islands maintain social order and cope with natural disasters and humanitarian relief and did not pose a risk to the United States.
“Does the U.S. view island nations as independent states with national sovereignty, or does it treat them as its appendants?”, he asked.
Solomon Islands lawmakers urged Sogavare to make public the terms of the security pact.
Sogavare said they would be disclosed after a “process”, adding that security cooperation with China was not directed at any countries or external alliances, “rather at our own internal security situation”.
According to a leaked draft, the pact will include provisions for Chinese police to help maintain social order and for Chinese naval vessels to replenish in the Solomons.
Sogavare told parliament on Tuesday the pact would not allow China to establish a military base. On Wednesday, he said it would allow for the protection of infrastructure, after riots in November saw buildings torched and lives lost.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in the middle of a general election campaign, has drawn opposition fire over what critics are calling the biggest diplomatic failure in the Pacific since World War Two.
Australia has provided policing support to the Solomons under a 2017 security treaty and an earlier regional policing mission.