The US government has warned Solomon Islands it will “respond accordingly” if its security agreement with China leads to a Chinese military presence in the Pacific island nation.
A visiting US delegation including Indo-Pacific security adviser Kurt Campbell delivered the message to the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, directly, the White House said, as fallout over the agreement continued to dominate the Australian federal election campaign.
Details of the agreement have not been made public. But according to a draft version of the deal, it would allow armed Chinese police to be deployed at Solomon Islands’ request to maintain “social order”. It would also allow China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, and Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
In a statement, the Biden administration said Sogavare assured the US there would be no long-term Chinese presence on the islands. But the US would nevertheless “follow developments closely in consultation with regional partners”.
“Solomon Islands representatives indicated that the agreement had solely domestic applications but the US delegation noted there are potential regional security implications of the accord, including for the United States and its allies and partners,” the White House said in a statement.
“The US delegation outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose, scope and transparency of the agreement.
“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.”
The White House also committed to expedite the reopening of its embassy in Honiara.
On Saturday morning the Australian treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, refused to be drawn on when the government became aware of the agreement.
It had been reported by the Nine newspapers earlier this week that Australian intelligence agencies first became aware in March, and played a role in leaking the draft of the agreement online.
But the failure of the Morrison government to prevent the deal has been described by the opposition Labor party as the most significant foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the second world war.
Frydenberg would not say when Australia first knew of the pact between the Solomon Islands and China, saying instead that “we’ve known that this was always a risk”, adding that “we’ve known that there were discussions under way”.
He also told Weekend Sunrise that the government could do little more to assist Solomon Islands, describing its existing aid as a “full court press”.
The Coalition government continued to try and use the issue to paint Labor as soft on China, with Frydenberg describing a speech by Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, in 2019 as the “biggest story” of the day.
Marles – who was campaigning alongside Jim Chalmers in Brisbane due to Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s infection with Covid – confirmed reports he had shown Chinese government officials a copy of a speech he gave at a Beijing university in 2019.
“I made a speech in China where I criticised China and I wanted to make sure that the Chinese government were not at all surprised with what I was going to say,” Marles said.
“The assertion made by the government is another desperate attempt to divert from their failings in the Pacific.”
Senior Labor MP Tanya Plibersek said on Saturday morning that Solomon Islands’ security pact followed “years of neglect” by the Australian government.
Asked what Labor would have done differently from the Coalition, she said: “We wouldn’t have trashed the relationship with our Pacific neighbours in the first place.
“It is inexplicable that, having been warned about this, [prime minister] Scott Morrison didn’t say to his foreign minister, Marise Payne, I want you on the first plane to the Solomon Islands to talk this through.”
The reaction to the deal in the Solomons has been mixed.
Peter Kenilorea, the chair of the Solomon Islands’ parliament’s foreign relations committee and an opposition MP, described the agreement as only benefiting China.
During a forum hosted this week, Kenilorea also questioned Sogavare’s contention that his government was entitled to reach the agreement as it was a sovereign decision.
“I don’t think is a path we should take or that it is a path would benefit Solomon Islands,” he said. “I think the biggest winner here will be the People’s Republic of China, in terms of a foothold in the Pacific region.”
He went on to say that “when it comes to security, especially in this heightened geopolitical environment, it is more than a national issue … the region is impacted, there are implications”.
Another participant in the forum, leading Solomon Islands academic Dr Transform Aqorau, said it was concerning that no one outside the government had seen a copy of the signed agreement or been provided with any detail of its content, but said he did not see anything wrong with an agreement that bolstered the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF).
But former Solomon Islands prime minister and current MP Danny Philip told the same forum that the agreement would help ensure Chinese assets were protected in the country, after Australian security forces that were deployed there failed to do so. His claims were rejected by Australian authorities.