By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the backlash to his country’s security negotiations with China was “very insulting”, in his first comments on a security treaty he said was ready to sign.
Australia, New Zealand and the United States have expressed concern about security negotiations between the Pacific island nation and China which became public last week after the leak of a draft security treaty, prompting concern over a Chinese base in the region.
Sogavare told his parliament on Tuesday the leaked security document was a draft and he would not give details on the content of the final deal.
“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” he said. The islands switched diplomatic allegiance to mainland China from Taiwan in 2019.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday it was a “potential militarization of the region”, and Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton said Canberra would be concerned if the deal led to a Chinese military base in the Pacific.
In a speech to parliament, Sogavare expressed criticism of larger countries who he said didn’t care if Pacific islands went under water because of climate change and considered the region “the backyard of big Western powers”.
He also denied opposition claims that a security pact with China would lead to an autocratic government.
The opposition has accused Sogavare of using a new police pact with China, and striking a security deal, to prop up his leadership.
During anti-government riots last year, Sogavare said the Chinatown district in the capital Honiara was burned down and there were also threats to sports infrastructure for the 2023 Pacific Games, a reference to seven stadiums being built by China in a deal struck after the islands switched diplomatic allegiance.
“If any country does not have the political appetite to do that, we must have an alternative arrangement in place,” he said, adding that infrastructure gifted to the Solomon Islands must be protected.
Australia provided police assistance to Sogavare to restore order after the riots under a 2017 security treaty, and New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea later also sent police.
The leaked draft said the security treaty would allow China’s armed police and the military to protect Chinese projects.
Sogavare rejected suggestions that China’s presence was a security threat to the region.
He said the Pacific islands nation would not “pick sides”, and the security treaty with Australia would remain in place.
Sogavare said he written to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the matter, as well as explaining the Solomons’ position to Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands Forum, the main regional group for political and economic policy cooperation, in calls.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing in Beijing on Tuesday that its “law-enforcement and security cooperation” with the Solomons Islands was in accordance with the law and international norms.
“We hope relevant countries respect Solomons’ sovereignty and the decisions it made, instead of thinking condescendingly that they are entitled to demand what the Solomon Islands can or cannot do,” Wang said.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne told parliament on Tuesday that Canberra’s security treaty with Honiara had been extended to 2023, adding diplomats had “regularly and respectfully raised our concern” about the China security negotiations.
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, in Fiji, said in a statement five defence personnel would stay in Honiara until May, and New Zealand would “continue to raise our strong condemnation” of Solomon Islands’ proposed agreement with China.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; additional reporting by Lucy Craymer in Wellington and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing. Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Raissa Kasolowsky)