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International relations

Solomons confirms China security talks; Australia, N.Z. concerned

Pact would be major inroad for Beijing in U.S. allies' Pacific 'back yard'

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019.    © Reuters

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) -- The Solomon Islands confirmed on Friday it was creating a partnership with China to address security threats and ensure a safe environment for investment as part of a diversification of its 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 "back yard."

Australia and New Zealand have expressed their 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.

"Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country," the government of the Solomon Islands said in its first public comment on the matter.

It said in a statement 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."

A Solomons Islands official told Reuters on Thursday 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 Solomons Islands said, adding that it needed to rebuild its economy after recent riots and would sign an air services agreement with China and increase trade.

A security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, would be preserved as the Solomon Islands deepened its relations with China, it said.

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 there would be "significant pushback in the region."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting on the issue 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 told reporters.

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 from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, signaling China's growing influence in the Pacific.

New Zealand's foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said in a statement that Pacific partners should be transparent in their actions.

"Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, however developments within this purported agreement could destabilize the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region's security," she said.

Australia and New Zealand have police in the Solomon Islands, part of a multinational policing contingent invited by Sogavare to restore order after riots in November.

The Solomon Islands resident who published online the leaked draft of the security agreement told Reuters the document 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 defense minister, Peter Dutton, said any move to establish a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be concerning.

"We want peace and stability in the region. We don't want unsettling influences, and we don't want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China," Dutton told Channel Nine.

The United States said last month it would open a U.S. embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking to military relations there.

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