China and Solomon Islands sign security agreement ahead of US visit
China and Solomon Islands sign security agreement ahead of US visit

China and Solomon Islands sign security agreement ahead of US visit

China has signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands a few days ahead of a visit by U.S. government officials to the South Pacific, exacerbating Western fears of Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Solomon Islands counterpart Jeremiah Manele signed the agreement “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 Asian official, and Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant foreign minister for East Asia and the Pacific, would visit the Solomon Islands this week.

The visit, first reported of the Financial Times this month, concerns in Washington as well as in Australia and New Zealand, countries that have traditionally worked closely with the South Pacific, over Chinese measures to step up its military presence in the region.

Beijing has argued that the security agreement does not have a military element. But according to a draft document the pact, which was leaked last month by Solomon Island’s opposition politicians, could allow China to send police, paramilitary forces and soldiers into the country and force naval ships to stop at its ports for resupply and crew transfers.

U.S. officials have said the agreement apparently leaves the door open for China to send military forces to the islands, and expressed concern that such deployments could increase tensions if made in an opaque 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 agreement.

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

This mission and the new security agreement are part of a broader Chinese push to strengthen political, economic and security ties with countries in the South Pacific that, although small and mostly poor, control vast sea areas. In 2019, Beijing began diplomatic relationships with the Solomon Islands and with Kiribati, both of which had previously recognized Taiwan.

The region has been recognized as high strategic since before World War II. Gaining a foothold in some 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 lines of sea communication connecting Australia with the United States.

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