The Solomon Islands Prime Minister has guaranteed that there will never be a Chinese military base in his country, saying that any such agreement with Beijing would undermine regional security, make the Solomon Islands an “enemy” and “target our country and our people. potential military attacks ”.
He has also said that Australia remains the “security partner” for the Solomon Islands, and he will only urge China to send security personnel to the country if there was a “gap” that Australia could not fill.
Manasseh Sogavare spoke exclusively to The Guardian, RNZ and SIBC in his first media interview since signing the controversial security deal with China earlier this year, saying it was time for the world to “trust us”.
“Let me assure you all again that there is no military base or any other military facility or institution in the agreement. And I think that is a very important point that we continue to repeat to the family in the region,” he said.
The news of the agreement with China aroused great concern among Western countries, especially the language in the text, which said that China would be allowed to “pay ship visits”. But Sogavare pushed back against claims that it would lead to a military base in the country, located less than 2,000km off Australia’s east coast.
“I have said it before and I will say it again, it is not in anyone’s interest, nor in the region’s interest in any military base, to be established in a Pacific island nation, let alone the Solomon Islands,” Sogavare said.
“I think the reason is simple; The reason is regionalism, the moment we establish a foreign military base, we immediately become an enemy. And we are also targeting our country and our people with potential military attacks. “
Sogavare also said that Chinese security personnel would only be invited to the Solomon Islands by the Solomon Islands government if Australia could not meet the requests for security assistance from the government.
“If there is a gap, we will not allow our country to go in the sink. If there is a gap, we will call for support from China. But we have made it very clear to the Australians, and many times, when we have this talk to them that they are the preferred partner… when it comes to security issues in the region, we will first approach them. ”
But the assurances seem to contradict comments from Sogavare last week, in which he praised China as a “worthy partner”, while saying relations with some countries “can get sour at times”, in an apparent reference to Australia. He also said he wanted China to play a permanent role in training police in his country and welcomed donations of police vehicles and drones from Beijing.
Sogavare has spent much of his time at the 51st Pacific Islands Forum leadership meeting in Fiji this week on allaying fears that his country would host China’s first military presence in the Pacific. He said: “We will not do anything that will endanger a member of our Pacific family.”
“What I have been saying all along with the signing of the agreement between the countries [is that it is a] sovereign issues of countries involved. However, we also appreciate that the Solomon Islands are part of the Pacific family. So we have ensured that the agreement does not in any way undermine security in the region. “
So far, Sogavare has not responded to media questions about the security deal, which was leaked in late March. Still, on Thursday he condemned journalists for contributing to misinformation and said: “Our office is always open. Officials are there and I am available too.”
He accused the media of “contributing to misinformation and then blowing up.”[ing] things out of proportion and said he hoped the interview would “give us the opportunity to clean the air”.
Sogavare’s assurances come as other Pacific leaders have raised concerns about China’s attempts to divide the region and fear that China would try to reintroduce a comprehensive economic and security agreement to the region.
The deal, which was proposed to 10 leaders during Wang Yi’s marathon tour of the region in June, was rejected, but China has indicated it will bring the deal back at a later date.
“I assumed they would never stop trying, right?” said Surangel Whipps Jr., president of Palau, who spoke on the sidelines of the PIF. “I mean, if they wanted to, they would keep pushing.”
Palau, which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not with China, was not one of the 10 countries to which the agreement was proposed, and Whipps said that by excluding some Pacific island countries, it “weakens the agreement”.
“I think it’s an attempt to divide the Pacific Ocean again. We just got back together, let’s stay together, ”he said. “If we are truly brothers in the Pacific, let us make sure that it does not affect our peace and security and our prosperity in the future. You know we respect the sovereignty of the people, but let us also look together at how this affects us. all.
Daniel Panuelo, President of the Federated States of Micronesia, raised serious concerns about the proposed regional agreement with Pacific leaders in a scathing letter warning that such a security pact could lead to the Pacific becoming a “center of future confrontation between these great powers” .
Forum partner countries such as the USA, China and Japan are usually invited to participate in a post-forum dialogue meeting where they can give presentations, but this year the partner dialogue will not be held in the week of the summit. China has been asked not to participate in this year’s PIF by Forum Chairman Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s Prime Minister.
Panuelo confirmed that this was to give Pacific leaders some respite from the intense geopolitical tension.
“It’s definitely the feeling of our membership,” he said.
Panuelo said the regional agreement had not yet been brought back to the Pacific countries by China and would not be discussed by leaders at Thursday’s retreat.
‘It will not be discussed. Our topics are what is in the best interests of our Pacific community, things that affect the 2050 strategy, climate change, the Suva agreement [that resolves the fracture in the PIF with Micronesian countries]. “
But Panuelo expected that it would be brought back to the Pacific countries when the next Partner Dialogue Forum would be held, which may be in September, on the sidelines of the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders.