Australia tells Solomon Islands not to sign China deal

Singapore: Pacific Minister Zed Seselja has told Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that he should not sign a security deal with China, and warned that Beijing’s presence could unsettle the region.

In the most direct comments from an Australian government minister on the security deal to date, Seselja cast aside weeks of careful diplomatic language that maintained the Australian government respected Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.

“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.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in New Zealand last year. Credit:Getty

The high stakes meeting followed weeks of careful diplomacy in an effort to get Sogavare to pull out of the deal on his own terms. Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said Pacific Island nations disliked being told what to do by Australia and that they were not “under Australia’s control or direction” after being criticised for being blindsided by the agreement in March.

Last week, Australian Secret Intelligence Service boss Paul Symon and the Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence, Andrew Shearer, met with Sogavare to press Australia’s concerns. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Wednesday called Solomons Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele to lobby against the deal on behalf of Washington, and New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been pushing for other Pacific countries to warn the Solomons against signing the agreement.


But those efforts appeared only to have stiffened Sogavare’s resolve to push ahead with the deal and elevate China alongside Australia as the Solomons’ major strategic partner on the promise of infrastructure investment across a poor and divided country. The deal has been initialled by officials but has yet to be fully signed off on by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Manele.

It is unusual for a foreign government to make such a direct and public request over an agreement that it is not a party to, but Seselja’s comments on Wednesday highlight the growing desperation of Canberra, Wellington and Washington to make sure the deal is not signed.

The draft agreement released last month contained clauses that could allow Chinese forces to protect Chinese investments in the Solomons and for China to request its navy ships be allowed to dock and refuel less than 2000 kilometres off the Australian coast. A Chinese security presence in the region would drain Australian navy resources and threaten shipping lanes from the east coast of Australia to Asia in the event of a conflict.

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