Shanghai’s announcement it had signed a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands, a country of about 700,000 led by pro-China Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, came just hours after Washington said it was sending officials to the Pacific nation amid concerns Jinping’s office could establish a military foothold there.
The apparent strengthening of the two countries’ relations follows political and social unrest at the Solomon Islands in part because of the government’s decision to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan — the self-governing island Beijing considers a breakaway province — to China.
A provision of a draft version of the security agreement, which leaked last month, showed the pact allowed Chinese security and naval deployments to the Solomon Islands.
While this raised international alarm — including in the US and Australia — China dubbed Western powers’ reaction “exaggerated”.
READ MORE: Xi Jinping struggles to squash unprecedented Shanghai protests
Speaking on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the West was “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact, which he described as a “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries”.
As he claimed China and the Solomon Islands had “officially signed the framework agreement on security cooperation recently”, he failed to provide details on the final version of the agreement.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has repeatedly said he does not intend to allow China to build a military base at the Solomon Islands. Yet, according to the leaked draft, armed Chinese police could be deployed there at request to maintain “social order”.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday the signing of the pact “could increase destabilisation within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region”.
He added: “The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC [People’s Republic of China] military forces to the Solomon Islands.”
During the US delegation’s forthcoming trip to the country this week, White House officials plan to discuss reopening the US embassy in the capital Honiara.
However, they have now said they are concerned about “the lack of transparency and unspecified nature” of the pact, with a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council stating the reported signing “follows a pattern of China offering shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation in fishing, resource management, development assistance and now security practices”.
Australia, meanwhile, is worried the pact could be a step toward a Chinese military presence less than 2,000km from its shores, which could “undermine stability in our region”, and criticised the pact has been negotiated in secret.
Putin and Xi to exploit Brexit Achilles heel [INSIGHT]
Fears erupt China secretly shipped missiles to Russia [REPORT]
China ‘preparing for war with US in Asia’ [ANALYSIS]
The government said it was “deeply disappointed” and would “seek further clarity on the terms of the agreement, and its consequences for the Pacific region”.
Two Australian ministers said in a statement late on Tuesday: “We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region.”
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Canberra would “continue to strongly encourage the Solomon Islands to engage in regional dialogue and to work with the Pacific family first, including prior to seeking security assistance from China under this arrangement”.
Mr Seselja took time out of the country’s federal election campaign last week to visit Honiara and to ask the Solomon Islands’ prime minister to consider not signing the proposed agreement with China.
But his efforts do not appear to have succeeded in preventing the deal from going forward.
Australia’s eagerness for the Solomon Islands to cooperate “with the Pacific family first” hints at fears over China gaining support in its activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has in recent years ramped up its military presence by building artificial islands and air bases – drawing diplomatic objections from its neighbouring countries.