By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) -An Australian minister met with the leader of the Solomon Islands on Wednesday and asked him not to sign a proposed security agreement between the Pacific island nation and China that Australia opposes.
Despite a national election campaign putting the Australian government in “caretaker” mode, when ministers traditionally avoid diplomatic engagement with other governments, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja visited Honiara with the support of Australia’s main opposition Labor Party.
Canberra is concerned the security pact, details of which have not been made public, could be a step towards a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from Australia.
“We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” Seselja said in a statement after meeting Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and other ministers.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that the security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands was not targeted at any third party and did not contradict the cooperation the Pacific nation has with other countries.
Australia should “respect the sovereign and independent choices made by China and the Solomons and not instigate confrontation,” Zhao said.
Officials from China and Solomon Islands have initialled but not yet signed the security pact, which Australia, New Zealand, United States and some Pacific islands neighbours have criticised as undermining regional stability.
Australia is Solomon Islands’ top development partner and would allocate A$160 million ($119 million) in support this year, Seselja said.
“We welcome recent statements from Prime Minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers,” he said.
On Tuesday, a leaked memo surfaced on social media showing the Chinese government had told the Solomon Islands in December it wanted to send a security team of 10 Chinese police with weapons to protect embassy staff in the wake of riots in Honiara in November.
The Solomon Islands government said on Wednesday no Chinese guns had entered the country other than a shipment of replica weapons used by Chinese police training officers.
The December request by the Chinese embassy was “held in abeyance” as the government continued to monitor the security situation after the November riots saw buildings burned, the statement from Sogavare’s office said.
Australian police were sent to Solomon Islands after the riots, and Seselja said they had been successful in restoring calm, acting under the direction of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.
A separate leaked draft of a security pact with China last month showed it would allow Chinese police and military officers to protect companies and infrastructure, and allow naval vessels to replenish in Honiara.
($1 = 1.3446 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham, additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Kim Coghill)