The United States will launch a high-level strategic dialogue with Solomon Islands in September to address mutual security concerns and enhance cooperation in public health, finance and other issues.
The latest U.S. diplomatic push came after the Pacific island nation signed a security deal with China that U.S. officials described as a “complete lack of transparency.”
“I think it’s clear that only a handful of people in a very small circle have seen this agreement,” said Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare “has been quoted publicly as saying he would only share the details with China’s permission, which I think is a source of concern as well,” Kritenbrink told reporters in a phone briefing Monday night.
Kritenbrink and White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell led a U.S. delegation that included Pentagon officials to Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands last week.
In a 90-minute meeting between American officials, Sogavare and two dozen members of his Cabinet on April 22, the United States made it “crystal clear” that it would “respond accordingly” to any attempt to establish a military base in Solomon Islands under its recent agreement with China.
U.S. officials declined to elaborate when asked if a U.S. military action can be ruled out if China tries to establish a military base in the south Pacific nation.
Citing China’s “problematic behaviors” that range from “advancing unlawful maritime claims to militarizing disputed features to engaging in illegal unreported and unregulated fishing,” Kritenbrink said the U.S. purpose was to communicate “in a very candid way” about the concerns over the security pact between Solomon Islands and China.
Monday in Beijing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said “the speculation that China will build a military base in Solomon Islands is pure disinformation.” Wang insisted the security deal between China and Solomon Islands is “open, transparent, legitimate, lawful and irreproachable.”
Regional experts, including Richard Herr who is a law professor at the University of Tasmania, said there are reasons for a valid concern over the security deal given the way the draft was phrased.
“It gave the Chinese maybe the right to support any intervention” in the event of domestic turbulence, Herr told VOA.
“So in case Sogavare found himself losing an election, maybe he would want either a coup or as he suggested: postpone the elections in order to stay in power. And that’s why the agreement in so many ways is fraught with danger for China, as well as for Australia, and the friends of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific,” said Herr, who has advised several Pacific governments, including on democracy and governance issues
Sogavare has reiterated “specific assurances that there would be no military base….no long-term presence, no power projection capability” under the security agreement with China.
According to a leaked draft, China could send armed police and military forces if requested by the government of Solomon Islands. China could also be allowed to base its navy ships off the coast of the Pacific island nation, which is just several-thousand miles away from Australia.
VOA Seoul Bureau Chief William Gallo contributed to this report.