The prime minister of Solomon Islands has guaranteed there will never be a Chinese military base in his country, saying that any such deal with Beijing would undermine regional security, make Solomon Islands an “enemy” and “put our country and our people as targets for potential military strikes”.
He has also said that Australia remains the “security partner of choice” for Solomon Islands and he would only call on China to send security personnel to the country if there was a “gap” that Australia could not meet.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, RNZ and SIBC in his first media interview since signing the controversial security deal with China earlier this year, Manasseh Sogavare said it was time for the world to “trust us”.
“Let me assure you all again, there is no military base, nor any other military facility, or institutions in the agreement. And I think that’s a very important point that we continue to reiterate to the family in the region,” he said.
News of the deal with China sparked huge concern among western countries, particularly language in the text saying China would be permitted to “make ship visits”. But Sogavare pushed back against claims it would lead to a military base in the country, which lies less than 2,000km from Australia’s east coast.
“I have said it before and I will say it again, that is not in someone’s interest, nor the interest of the region for any military base, to be established in any Pacific island country, let alone 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 also put our country and our people as targets for potential military strikes.”
Sogavare also said that Chinese security personnel would only be invited to Solomon Islands by Solomon Islands government if Australia could not meet the requests for security assistance from the government.
“If there is any gap, we will not allow our country to go down the drain. If there is a gap, we will call on support from China. But we’ve made it very clear to the Australians, and many times when we have this conversation with them, that they are a partner of choice … when it comes to security issues in the region, we will call on them first.”
However, the assurances seem at odds with comments made by Sogavare last week, in which he praised China as a “worthy partner”, while saying relationships with some countries “at times can sour”, 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 leaders meeting in Fiji this week allaying fears that his country would host China’s first military presence in the Pacific. He said: “We will not do anything that will put any member of our Pacific family at risk.”
“What I’ve been saying all along with the signing of the agreement between countries [is that it is a] sovereign issue of countries involved. However, we also appreciate that Solomon Islands is part of the Pacific family. So we have ensured the agreement does not in any way undermine the security of the region.”
Until now, Sogavare has not answered questions from media about the security deal, which was leaked in late March. Yet on Thursday he condemned journalists for contributing to misinformation, saying: “Our office is always open. Officials are there and I’m also accessible.”
He accused the media of “contributing to misinformation and then blow[ing] things out of proportion and said he hoped the interview would “give us the opportunity to clear the air”.
Sogavare’s reassurances come as other Pacific leaders have raised concerns about China’s attempts to divide the region, and fears that China would attempt to reintroduce a sweeping economic and security deal 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, the president of Palau, speaking on the sidelines of PIF. “I mean, if they wanted it, they’re going to keep pushing.”
Palau, which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not with China, was not one of the 10 countries to whom the deal 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 again. We’ve just gotten back together, let’s stay together,” he said. “If we are truly brothers in the Pacific, let’s make sure that it doesn’t affect our peace and security and our prosperity in the future. You know, we respect people’s sovereignty, but also collectively let’s look at how this affects all of us.
Daniel Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, raised serious concerns about the proposed regional deal with Pacific leaders in a scathing letter that warned such a security pact could lead Pacific countries to be the “center of future confrontation between these major powers” .
Forum partner countries like the US, China and Japan are usually invited to attend a post-forum dialogue meeting, at which they can give presentations, but this year the partner dialogue will not be held during the week of the summit. China has been asked not to participate in this year’s PIF by the forum chair Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji.
Panuelo confirmed this was to give Pacific leaders some breathing room from the intense geopolitical tension.
“That’s absolutely the sense of our membership,” he said.
Panuelo said the regional deal had not yet been brought back to 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 interest of our Pacific community, things that influence that 2050 strategy, climate change, the Suva agreement [that resolves the fracture in the PIF with Micronesian countries].”
But Panuelo anticipated it would be brought back to Pacific countries when the next partners dialogue forum would be held, which might be in September, at the sidelines of the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism