Australia welcomed reassurances from the Solomon Islands that it would not allow China to install a military base on its territory, helping to assuage concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific region.
Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Friday met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who reaffirmed to her that Australia remained the country’s first partner of choice in matters of security and development.
Sogavare also told Wong there would be no persistent foreign military presence in the nation, even after it signed a security pact with China in April, which sparked concern in Canberra and Washington over Beijing’s motives in the region.
“We’ve talked a lot about being part of the Pacific family and we mean it,” Wong told reporters in Honiara. “Australia’s view does remain that the Pacific family should be responsible for our security, and the Pacific family is more than capable of providing that security.”
As well as regional security, the two leaders also discussed issues relating to infrastructure, health, education, labor mobility and climate change, she added.
Since being sworn in as foreign minister in May under a new Labor government, the tour was Wong’s third trip to the Pacific region as she seeks to strengthen diplomatic relationships to counter Beijing. Some of her visits have coincided with a rare weeklong trip to the region by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi that’s being seen as a sign of Beijing’s intensifying competition with the U.S. and Australia for influence.
The signing of the security agreement between the Solomons and China in April was a major diplomatic victory for Beijing and its first such deal in the Pacific. It also underscored a fraying relationship between Canberra and Honiara after Sogavare accused Australia — at the time under the leadership of former premier Scott Morrison — and other Western nations of treating his country as children with guns who needed to be “supervised.”
Still, China’s efforts in the region hit a significant roadblock after its plan to sign a sweeping trade and security deal with 10 Pacific Island countries was shelved because some of them expressed concern about specific elements in the proposal.
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