Australian minister tries to end Solomons-China pact
CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja has flown to the Solomon Islands in a bid to prevent a possible Chinese military presence in the South Pacific island nation.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday confirmed Seselja's visit, which occurred a day earlier, after the Solomon Islands announced on April 1 it had initialed a security pact with China.
Two top Australian intelligence officials, Australian Secret Intelligence Service boss Paul Symon and Office of National Intelligence Director-General Andrew Shearer, have since met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
The Solomon Islands government has said it won't allow China to build a military base there and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the South Pacific.
Australia has a bilateral security pact with the Solomon Islands and Australian police peacekeepers have been in the capital, Honiara, since riots in November.
Morrison said Australia was respectfully and directly communicating with the Solomon Islands on the Chinese security deal.
"The suggestion that somehow, some seem to be making, that the Solomon Islands is somehow under the control of Australia I think is offensive to the Solomon Islands," Morrison said.
"They are a sovereign nation. I respect their independence and they will make their own decisions about their own sovereignty," he said.
"What we have been doing is ensuring that they are fully aware of the risks and the security matters that are not only of concern to Australia but islands, Pacific nations across the Pacific," he added.
Seselja said he had asked Sogavare to abandon the Chinese agreement.
"We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region's security frameworks," Seselja said in a statement.
"We welcome recent statements from Prime Minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers," Seselja added.
Australia government playing caretaker before elections
Seselja's mission is unusual in that Morrison announced on Sunday that an election will be held in Australia on May 21. Morrison now leads a caretaker government and any policy decisions must be made in consultation with the opposition.
Opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs Penny Wong said the Australian government had failed on the Solomon Islands.
"This is happening on Mr. Morrison's watch – the warnings have been there for months, the draft agreement public for weeks – but he has failed to front up and explain how Australia is responding," Wong said in a statement.
"We need to work with the Pacific family and allies to build a region where sovereignty is respected – and where Australia is the partner of choice," she added.
Under the terms of the draft agreement, China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomon Islands "to assist in maintaining social order" and for a variety of other reasons. It could also send warships to the islands for stopovers and to replenish supplies, leading to speculation about the possibility of China establishing a naval base on the islands.