US and Chinese diplomats fought for Solomon Islands sentiment on Friday after the small island state shocked its US allies by signing a defense pact with Beijing.
The traditional allies of the Pacific state, the United States and Australia, are deeply suspicious of the deal and fear it could give China a military foothold in the South Pacific.
A White House delegation landed at the airport in the capital Honiara and was transported to the city in a white minibus, an AFP correspondent on the spot said ahead of scheduled meetings with the government.
On the same day, China’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands was not far away, attending a ceremony with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to present an elite, blue-colored career.
It is part of a China-funded national stadium complex, reportedly worth US $ 53 million, which will host the 2023 Pacific Games for the first time in the island state with 800,000 people, many of whom live in poverty.
“On behalf of the Chinese government and the people of China, we congratulate the Government of the Solomon Islands,” said Chinese Ambassador Li Ming as he delivered the latest investment that Beijing was to shower on a Pacific nation.
As its influence grows, Beijing announced this week that it had signed the unpublished security pact with Honiara.
A draft agreement shocked the countries of the region when it was leaked last month, especially measures that would allow Chinese naval missions to the Pacific nation, which is less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia.
– ‘Lack of transparency’ –
The Prime Minister of the Pacific insists that the pact will not lead to China building a military base, but this has not done much to allay concerns in the United States and Australia.
Too late to stop the agreement, the White House said its diplomatic delegation visited Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands this week to “ensure that our partnerships deliver prosperity, security and peace across the Pacific and Indo-Pacific”.
The US diplomatic team – led by Indo-Pacific National Security Council coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink – landed in Honiara just three days after the announcement of the security pact with China.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency and unspecified nature of this agreement, which follows a pattern of offering shady, vague agreements with little regional consultation in fisheries, resource management, development assistance and now security practices,” said a State Department official. AFP in Washington this week.
“The agreement has been moving forward for some time. The reported signing does not change our concerns.”
The Solomon Islands leader says his government signed the agreement “with open eyes”. But he has refused to tell parliament when the signed version will be published.
Sogavare’s government severed ties with Taiwan in September 2019 in favor of diplomatic relations with China, which unlocked investment but fueled rivalry between the islands.
Last November, protests against Sogavare’s regime sparked violent riots in the capital, where much of the city’s Chinatown was set on fire.
While the unrest was driven in part by poverty and unemployment, anti-China sentiment has also been mentioned as playing a role.
str / djw / al / cwl