China’s Foreign Minister Wang
Yi will visit Solomon Islands this week in what the South Pacific nation’s leader says is a “milestone” in his country’s relationship with China, amid concerns over their security pact that could allow Chinese military personnel on the islands.
But Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted in a statement posted on his government's website on Tuesday that the partnership with Beijing does not come at the expense of ties with Australia, the United States and others.
The visit of Wang at the head of a 20-person delegation on Thursday and Friday comes amid growing concerns about China’s influence in the strategically important Solomon Islands.
Wang will be the highest-ranking Chinese representative to visit the country since the two nations formalised diplomatic relations 32 months ago, the Solomon Islands Foreign Affairs Ministry said, after Sogavare switched recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.
The security agreement, signed in April, would allow Beijing to send police and military personnel to Solomon Islands “to assist in maintaining social order" and let Chinese warships make port calls for “logistical replenishment."
That has raised fears of a possible Chinese naval base on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand.
Sogavare, who defends the pact as entirely about “internal security,” said Wang’s visit would include the signing of a number of “key bilateral agreements”.
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“Prime Minister Sogavare looks forward to a productive engagement with PRC (the People’s Republic of China) as an important development partner at a very critical time in our history,” another statement released on Monday said.
Sogavare noted that a New Zealand delegation was also due “in coming months” and that he had hosted high-level visits from Australia, Japan and the US in April.
“My government welcomes all high-level visits from our key development partners," Sogavare said .
"We will always stand true to our policy of ‘Friends to All and Enemies to None’ as we look forward to continuing productive relations with all our development partners.”
The news of the visit came as US President Joe Biden met in Tokyo with members of the so-called “Quad” group of nations – the US, Japan, Australia and India – which is becoming increasingly relevant as the US emphasises security in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's rising influence.
The meetings included newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose centre-left Labor Party has promised to establish a Pacific defence school to train neighbouring armies in response to China’s potential military presence on the Solomon Islands.
Labor has condemned the security pact between China and the Solomons as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.
Following Albanese's victory, Sogavare congratulated him, assuring the new prime minister “that Solomon Islands remains Australia's steadfast friend and development partner of choice”.
The US, Australia and others had urged the Solomon Islands not to sign the pact with China over concerns it could destabilize the country and set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific region.
China pushed back last week at accusations the pact was being used to put pressure on countries in the Pacific, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying it was based on mutual respect, and “conducive to stability and peace, in line with shared interests in the South Pacific”.
“Australia claims the Solomon Islands as its backyard and wants to set a red line,” Zhao said. “Isn't this coercion?”