Saturday, 30 September 2023

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Australia fears China’s latest Pacific deal could stoke tensions

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Australia has urged China to release the details of a new policing pact with Solomon Islands, saying Beijing’s latest push for influence threatens to inflame tensions in the South Pacific.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare inked a raft of deals during a trip to Beijing this week, including an agreement allowing China to maintain a police presence in the developing Pacific nation until 2025.

China has lavished attention on Solomon Islands since it severed ties with Taiwan in 2019, pledging large amounts of aid and bankrolling a series of critical infrastructure projects.

A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Tuesday there were concerns the police cooperation plan between Solomon Islands and China “will invite further regional contest”.

“Solomon Islands and China should provide transparency of their intentions to Australia and the region by publishing the agreement immediately, so the Pacific family can collectively consider the implications for our shared security.”

Solomon Islands, one of the poorest countries in the Pacific, sits at the centre of an escalating tug-of-war as China vies for regional influence with Australia and the United States.

Australia’s own longstanding security pact with Solomon Islands was recently put under review, stoking fears the Solomons were drifting closer to China’s orbit.

Although Sogavare has repeatedly stressed his country was “friends to all”, a video posted by Chinese state media showed him telling officials “I am back home” after touching down in Beijing earlier this week.

Solomon Islands opposition politician Peter Kenilorea Junior said he had a “gut feeling” that Sogavare wanted to shift the country’s stance closer to China.

“This choice has been made a long time ago,” he told Australian broadcaster ABC.

“Arriving in China and saying that, ‘I’m home’, it’s very clear.”

Chinese Premier Li Qiang earlier this week praised Sogavare for switching diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing, saying it was “the correct choice that confirms to the trend of the times”.

Sogavare, in turn, told Li that his country “has a lot to learn from China’s development experience”.

Solomon Islands alarmed Western powers in 2022 when it signed a secretive security pact with China.

Although the details of that pact have never been released, it has stoked fears that China could use it to establish a military foothold in the South Pacific.


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