China on Tuesday confirmed it has sealed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands, an agreement Western governments fear could give Beijing a military foothold in the South Pacific.
“The foreign ministers of China and the Solomon Islands officially signed the framework agreement on security cooperation recently,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing.
A draft version of the agreement, leaked last month, sent shockwaves across the region over provisions allowing Chinese security and naval deployments to the crisis-hit Pacific Island nation.
According to the draft, armed Chinese police could be deployed at the Solomon Islands’ request to maintain “social order.”
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s assurances that he does not intend to allow China to build a military base there has done little to alleviate concerns in Washington.
“The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC military forces to the Solomon Islands,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.
The signing of the pact “could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region,” he added.
The White House is sending a high-level delegation to the Solomon Islands this week to discuss its concerns as well as the reopening of the US embassy in the former British protectorate’s capital, Honiara.
Earlier this month, Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja traveled to Honiara to ask the prime minister in person not to ink the deal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang on Tuesday accused Western powers of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact.
Security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands is “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries,” he said.
The United States and its Asian allies have voiced growing concern about China’s assertiveness in the Pacific, where it is locked in several territorial disputes with neighboring countries.
The Solomon Islands, a World War II battlefront, recognized China only in 2019 after switching from ties with Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims.
The island nation of 800,000 has been wracked by political and social unrest, and many of its people live in poverty.
In November, protesters tried to storm the parliament and went on a deadly three-day rampage, torching much of Honiara’s Chinatown.
The unrest was sparked by opposition to Sogavare’s rule and fueled by unemployment, while anti-China sentiment also played a role.