The Pacific island nation last week confirmed it would expand its security relationship with China, raising concerns among regional leaders who fear Beijing’s growing influence.
“We find it very offensive to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told parliament on Tuesday, responding to international backlash. “Our approach to security is not applied in a vacuum and not without due regard to all of our partners.”
“The security treaty was adopted at the request of the Solomon Islands, and our new friends did not put pressure on us in any way,” he added. “We have no intention, Mr. Speaker, to get involved in any geopolitical power struggle.”
He also criticized the Australian media for their reports that Beijing is allegedly planning to build a military base in the Solomon Islands – potentially a first for China in the Pacific region, which Canberra considers its backyard.
In a statement Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said the government is “working to sign and implement a number of development programs with China to further create a safe and secure environment for local and foreign investment.”
On Tuesday, Sogaware defended the move, telling Parliament: “As we move towards our security needs, we need to diversify … we are a country with limited security capabilities and it is clear that we will need support at all times.”
But the potential deal has raised concerns among several countries, including the US and Australia, which are growing wary of the growing presence of an assertive China in the region.
For decades, Australia has enjoyed strong influence among the Pacific Islands as a wealthy donor to aid-dependent countries. But in recent years, China has also become a major player in the region, investing billions of dollars, making these tiny islands the center of a bitter power struggle.
These tensions only intensified as China built up its maritime capabilities and militarized the islands in the South China Sea.
Australia has a security agreement in place since 2018 with the Solomon Islands that allows Australian police, defense and civilian personnel to quickly deploy to the islands in the event of security threats.
The Solomon Islands government highlighted the agreement in a statement Friday, saying it will “continue to maintain its Security Agreement with Australia as it develops and deepens its relationship with all partners, including China.”
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton on Friday expressed concern that any security deal with Beijing could eventually lead to China expanding its military presence in the region. This position was confirmed on Monday by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The arrangement is “a problem for the region,” Morrison told reporters, but added that it did not come as a surprise. “We have been aware of this pressure for a long time,” he said, adding that the latest developments served as “a reminder of the constant pressure and threats that are present in our region for our own national security.”
New Zealand also expressed “strong condemnation” in a statement on Tuesday, adding that a possible partnership “risks destabilizing the current institutions and arrangements that have long kept the Pacific region secure.”
The Solomon Islands only recently established diplomatic relations with Beijing, with the government recognizing mainland China over Taiwan in 2019, a decision that has seen the government face pressure from citizens.
It was one of the problems that arose during violent protests in the capital Honiara last November, when Australia sent police and defense personnel to support local authorities.
During a speech to Sogaware on Tuesday, he said that both New Zealand and Australia remain important bilateral partners and that he wrote a letter and text messages to Morrison on the subject.
On Friday, Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly answer a question about the upcoming security agreement, but said that China and the Solomon Islands “carry out normal law enforcement and security cooperation based on equality and mutual benefit.”
Additional reporting by CNN’s Simone McCarthy and Lizzie Yee.