By Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer
SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) -The Solomon Islands confirmed on Friday it was creating a partnership with China to tackle security threats and ensure a safe environment for investment as it diversifies security relations.
A security pact with the Pacific island nation would be a major inroad for China in a region that U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand have for decades seen as their “backyard.”
Both have expressed concern about the impact on regional security of military cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands after a draft document outlining the proposed cooperation was leaked this week. The United States expressed similar concerns on Friday.
In its first public comment on the matter, the Solomon Islands government said it was “diversifying the country’s security partnership, including with China” and was working to sign a number of agreements with it “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments.”
“Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country,” it said in a statement.
On Thursday, a Solomon Islands official told Reuters a security agreement with China covering the military would be sent to its cabinet for consideration. The Solomons has already signed a policing deal with China.
The arrangement would cover humanitarian needs besides maintaining the rule of law, the Solomon Islands said, adding that it needed to rebuild its economy after recent riots and would sign an air services pact with China and increase trade.
A security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, would be preserved, it added.
Australian Minister for Pacific Zed Seselja said the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, had been told of Australia’s concern over the discussions with China and Canberra expected “significant pushback in the region.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting earlier on Friday, said Australia and New Zealand were part of the “Pacific family” and had a history of providing security support and responding to crises.
“There are others who may seek to pretend to influence and may seek to get some sort of hold in the region and we are very conscious of that,” he said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the draft security agreement and the police deal did not address the underlying issues that contributed to the unrest in November.
“We do not believe PRC security forces and their methods need to be exported,” the spokesperson added, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“This would only fuel local, regional and international concerns over Beijing’s unilateral expansion of its internal security apparatus to the Pacific.”
Last month, Washington said it would open an embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking to strengthen military relations there.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told ABC Radio the proposed pact was “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it’s one that is adverse to Australia’s national security interests.”
The Pacific Island nation of fewer than a million people, 2,000 km (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, signalling China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said Pacific partners should be transparent in their actions.
“Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into,” she said. “However, developments within this purported agreement could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security.”
Australia and New Zealand have police in the Solomon Islands, part of a multinational contingent invited by Sogavare to restore order after the riots.
The Solomon Islands resident who published online the leaked draft of the security agreement told Reuters it had come from a police source.
It covers Chinese police and military assisting with social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.
Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, said any move to establish a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be a matter of concern.
“We want peace and stability in the region,” Dutton told Channel Nine. “We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called on relevant parties to look at security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands “objectively and calmly and not over-interpret it.”
“Some politicians on the Australian side have published some fallacies of so-called Chinese coercion and deliberately created an atmosphere of tension, which is extremely irresponsible and does not help regional stability and development,” Wang told a regular news briefing.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lucy CraymerAdditional reporting by Eduardo Baptista in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in WashingtonEditing by Clarence Fernandez and Matthew Lewis)