CANBERRA – Australia’s new foreign minister visited the Solomon Islands on Friday to assure the South Pacific island nation it does not need a security pact with China.
The Solomons is the fifth Pacific nation that Foreign Minister Penny Wong has visited since her center-left Labor Party came to power in May 21 elections.
She is the first Australian minister to visit the Solomons since its government signed a secretive security pact with China that many fear could lead to a Chinese naval base being established within 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of Australia’s northeast coast.
Wong described her talks with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare as “constructive” and “wide ranging.”
“Australia’s view does remain that the Pacific family should be responsible for our security and the Pacific family’s more than capable of providing that security,” Wong told reporters in the capital, Honiara.
“I welcomed Prime Minister Sogavare’s reassurances that there will not be a military base nor persistent military presence here in Solomon Islands, and I welcome his assurance that Australia remains Solomon Islands first security partner of choice and first development partner of choice,” she added.
Sogavare’s office did not immediately respond to the AP’s request for comment.
Australia is the Solomons’ most generous donor of foreign aid and, like China, has a bilateral security pact with the restive nation of 700,000.
Australian police have been maintaining peace in Honiara since riots in November last year.
When the Sino-Solomons pact was signed during the recent Australian election campaign, Wong described it as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.
The new Australian government is promising more action on climate change and greater engagement with Australia’s island neighbors.
Wong announced in Honiara that Australia will donate up to 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for children aged 5 to 11. Australia has already provided the Solomons with more than 500,000 doses.
Australia’s former minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, flew to Honiara in April to unsuccessfully urge Sogavare to abandon plans to sign the Chinese pact.
Seselja arrived on the same day that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with the Solomons’ government about Washington’s plan to reopen an embassy in Honiara.
A U.S. delegation to Honiara led by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, warned after the pact was signed that the United States would take unspecified action against the Solomons should the agreement with China pose a threat to U.S. or allied interests.
Sogavare accused the U.S. and Australia of threatening and disrespectful behavior.