Solomons leader: Chinese base would make his people targets

SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said Thursday that his country’s new security pact with Beijing would not allow China to build a military base on the South Pacific nation and make his citizens “targets for potential military strikes.”

Sogavare struck an agreement with Beijing in April to provide security support. Details of the pact haven’t been made public but the deal has raised fears of a permanent Chinese military facility within 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of the northeast Australian coast.

He used a meeting of Pacific island nation leaders Thursday in Fiji to strongly deny that his country would become a Chinese military foothold in the South Pacific.

“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 told reporters in the capital Suva.

“There is no military base, nor any other military facility or institutions, in the agreement. And that’s a very important point that we continue to reiterate to the family in the region,” he added.

Without naming the United States or the Solomons’ key security partner Australia, Sogavare told his parliament in May that opponents of the Chinese pact had threatened his country and insulted it.

Both the United States and Australia have told the Solomon Islands that the country hosting a Chinese military base would not be tolerated.

New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ’s government has since been elected on a promise of more aid and engagement with the country’s island neighbors.

Sogavare greeted Albanese with a hug on Wednesday at their first face-to-face meeting that took place in Suva during a Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit. The forum had been a collection of 18 island nations until Kiribati withdrew this week.

Albanese described the meeting as “very constructive,” stressing that “interests of Australia would not be served by having a military base so close to where Australia is.”

“I welcome his (Sogavare’s) comments ruling out there being a Chinese base (near) Australia,” Albanese said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had spoken frankly with Sogavare during a meeting on Wednesday of her concerns about the Chinese pact. She said the two leaders found “common ground” on the need to limit militarization in the region.

The leaders’ summit has been soaked in geopolitical tension between China and the United States, which have both shown heightened strategic interest in the region.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who chaired the summit, told his fellow leaders in an opening address that the “global and geopolitical landscape is hotly competitive.”

“We are seeing a multipolar system emerge, all clamoring to shape the world in their favor,” Bainimarama said.

Bainimarama invited U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to deliver a virtual address on Wednesday. Her invitation was remarkable given that the forum’s dialogue partners — including the United States, China, Britain and France — have not been invited to this year’s summit.

Harris proposed new embassies in Tonga and in Kiribati, a Micronesian state that split from the forum this week.

She also proposed requesting that the U.S. Congress triple funding for fisheries assistance to $60 million a year and appoint the first U.S. envoy to the forum.

Two Chinese embassy defense attaches who were watching Harris’ address from media seating were spotted by a journalist and reported to police. Police asked them to leave, The Guardian reported.

Forum officials have not responded when media asked whether the Chinese officials had been authorized to attend.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the pair broke no rules by watching Harris’ speech.

“Chinese representatives have been invited to attend relevant meetings and events,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. Kiribati’s withdrawal from the forum is being interpreted as a deepening of China’s influence in the region.

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