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International relations

No China base: Solomon Islands' denial does little to quell fears

Analyst says Sogavare risks boxing himself in despite vow not to choose sides

Solomon Islands citizens tour a landing craft from a New Zealand ship that dropped off personnel and supplies in 2013. The islands' government is drawing closer to China. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)

AUCKLAND -- The leader of the Solomon Islands on Tuesday waded into a storm of controversy over a proposed security arrangement with China, vowing it would not lead to a Chinese military base in his country while calling criticism of the talks "very insulting."

In a fiery, often dogmatic 35-minute speech to parliament, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted his government did not want to become embroiled in the geopolitical struggle between China and the West. "We are not pressured by our new friends and there is no intention to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands," Sogavare said. "We are insulted by such unfounded stories," he added, saying there was "no devious intention, no secret plan."

His remarks, however, seemed unlikely to put to rest anxiety over how his government would straddle the big power divide. At the same time, pointed words directed at the West highlighted how some small countries see China as the answer to unmet needs.

Jon Fraenkel, a Victoria University of Wellington political science professor, noted that while Sogavare repeatedly stressed his country's right to diversify its security arrangements, seeking military ties with China on top of existing links with Australia and New Zealand made it more -- not less -- likely that he would be pressed to choose sides.

"The only plausible method of avoiding that fate is to retain neutrality and invite neither side to establish a military presence," said Fraenkel, who has written extensively on the Solomons, after the speech.

The issue of the Solomons' relations with China blew up last week, when a draft agreement between Beijing and Honiara emerged. The terms seemed to suggest that it could lead to a Chinese naval presence in the archipelago of 690,000 people, 2,000 km across the Coral Sea from Australia.

Sogavare's speech was his first public comment on the uproar. Acknowledging that the document was genuine, he called the leakers "lunatics and agents of foreign regimes."

Canberra has expressed strong misgivings, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the negotiations were "not a surprise" and that they were "a reminder of the constant pressure and threats that present in our region to our own national security."

Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday said Australia's own security arrangement with the Solomons, signed in 2017 to lay a framework for emergency assistance, had been extended to 2023 and that diplomats had "regularly and respectfully raised our concern," according to Reuters.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday warned against the "potential militarization of the region."

Sogavare said he had sent a text to Morrison and had telephoned Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, the current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, to say the security deal with Australia remained in place. China's foreign ministry, for its part, has said that security cooperation with the Solomons should be viewed "objectively and calmly."

The Solomons' budding ties with Beijing have been under growing scrutiny since Sogavare's government switched recognition from Taiwan in 2019. This move was resisted by a large part of the islands' population.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2019. The Solomons switched recognition from Taiwan that year.   © Reuters

The tensions flared again late last year when riots targeted the capital's Chinatown district, prompting Australia and New Zealand to send in peacekeeping forces.

But Fraenkel said that after a previous lengthy Australian involvement in peacekeeping in the Solomons, following ethnic unrest around the turn of the century, Canberra might want to avoid being bogged down again.

Sogavare appears to want additional security assistance from China to deal with such domestic difficulties, in particular the continuing weakness of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and the risk of further unrest in Honiara.

In the legislature on Tuesday, the prime minister was able to use parliamentary rules to limit debate to broad policy rather than detail, saying the Solomons set up the China deal for development aid, not military help. He called the perception that regional security would be threatened by China "utter nonsense."

Despite the assurances that he would not choose sides, Sogavare directed some sharp barbs at the West, Australia in particular.

When critics say the Solomons' security talks are "insensitive," he argued, "what they mean is that we must be sensitive to the needs of Western dominant powers." He also accused Australia, which has drawn criticism for slow action on climate change, of not caring if small Pacific countries sink under the ocean in 20 years.

"We find that very hypocritical," he said.

A beach in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands: The government's deepening ties with China have raised alarm in Australia and New Zealand.   © Reuters

In an ironic twist, Sogavare also claimed that Australia had refused to build a naval base in the Solomons in 2017, but had subsequently changed its position. "We respected Australian issues back then but our needs remained," he said.

Sogavare, 67, has had a topsy-turvy political career in one of the world's least developed nations. He first entered parliament in 1997 and became prime minister during ethnic unrest in 2000, when then Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu was kidnapped by a group of rebels. Sogavare has since served three separate terms, beginning his current and fourth stint in 2019.

Fraenkel said that Sogavare runs the risk of again losing office, as he did in a 2007 no-confidence vote, over foreign policy issues. At the time, he was criticized for jeopardizing international relationships amid a spat with Australia over his attorney general, who Canberra wanted extradited on sex charges.

But for Australia, meanwhile, the Solomons-China controversy illustrates the difficulty of maintaining influence in the Pacific. In a blog post for the Lowy Institute think tank, Derek Gwali Futaiasi wrote last Friday: "Australia's current monopoly as the 'Pacific police' is surely at stake. The challenge is for Canberra to convince the Pacific region that Australia has a robust approach to security-related needs in the region."

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