Wed. May 25th, 2022

China has signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands just days ahead of a visit by US government officials to the South Pacific country, exacerbating western fears over Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, and his Solomon Islands counterpart Jeremiah Manele signed the deal “in recent days”, China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The announcement came just hours after the White House confirmed that Kurt Campbell, its top Asia official, and Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, would visit the Solomon Islands this week.

The visit, first reported by the Financial Times this month, follows concerns in Washington, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, countries that traditionally have close co-operation with South Pacific nations, over Chinese moves to step up its military presence in the region.

Beijing has claimed the security deal does not have a military element. But according to a draft document leaked last month by Solomon Island opposition politicians, the pact could allow China to send police, paramilitary forces and soldiers to the country and have naval ships stop in its ports for resupply and crew transfers.

US officials have said the agreement appeared to leave the door open for China to send military forces to the islands, and expressed concern that such deployments could raise tension if done in a non-transparent manner.

It is unclear whether any changes were made to the text of the agreement before it was signed as neither China nor the Solomon Islands have published the final deal.

The Solomon Islands has had a security deal with Australia since 2003 when Canberra began a 14-year peace mission in response to ethnic riots that ended in 2017. When fresh unrest erupted in the capital Honiara late last year, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea sent forces to support local police at the request of the Solomon Islands. But soon after, China sent police to train local riot control forces for the first time.

That mission and the new security agreement are part of a wider Chinese push to step up political, economic and security ties with South Pacific countries that, while small and mostly impoverished, control huge areas of ocean. In 2019, Beijing took up diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands and with Kiribati, both of which had previously recognized Taiwan.

The region has been recognized as highly strategic since before the second world war. Gaining a foothold in certain of its territories could allow China to spy on US forces based in Hawaii and Guam. Others could allow China’s forces to move closer to important sea lines of communication linking Australia with the US.

Australia said on Tuesday that it was “deeply disappointed” by the security deal, including the “lack of transparency” and “potential to undermine stability” in the region. In a statement Canberra also welcomed what it said was a commitment from Manele that the Solomon Islands would “never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers”.

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