Solomon Islands leader visits Beijing, highlighting U.S.-China rivalry in South Pacific

PM Manasseh Sogavare met Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Premier Li Qiang. Mr. Sogavare and Mr. Li presided over the signing of agreements on police, economic and technical cooperation

July 11, 2023 02:01 am | Updated 02:01 am IST - BEIJING

Leaders of the Solomon Islands and China promised on Monday to expand relations that have fuelled unease in Washington and Australia about Beijing’s influence in the South Pacific.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the country’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Qiang. Mr. Sogavare and Mr. Li presided over the signing of agreements on police, economic and technical cooperation.

“We are here to further boost relations,” Mr. Sogavare told Mr. Li following a ceremony at which a Chinese military band played the Solomon Islands national anthem.

The Solomon Islands, 2,000 kilometres northeast of Australia, has been China's biggest success in a campaign to expand its presence in the South Pacific. Mr. Sogavare's government switched official recognition in 2019 to Beijing from Taiwan, the self-governed island democracy claimed by the mainland's ruling Communist Party as part of its territory.

“Solomon Islands, sir, has a lot to learn from China’s development experience,” Mr. Sogavare told Mr. Li. He welcomed an opportunity for dialogue to enhance “bilateral interaction and cooperation.”

The two governments “have decided to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual respect and common development,” Mr. Li said. “The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands has developed rapidly, and we can now say that it is very fruitful.”

The Solomon Islands signed a secretive security agreement with Beijing that might have allowed Chinese military forces in the South Pacific. However, Mr. Sogavare rejected suggestions his government might give Beijing a military foothold in the region.

The nearby island nation of Kiribati also switched official relations to Beijing in 2019.

Meeting later with Mr. Sogavare, Mr. Xi said Beijing wants to expand relations and trade through its Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other infrastructure from the Pacific across Asia and Africa.

“China supports more Chinese enterprises to invest and start businesses in the region,” Mr. Xi said, according to state TV. “China understands that Pacific Island countries are facing severe challenges from climate change and is willing to strengthen exchanges and cooperation.”

China's Foreign Ministry said last week that Sogavare's visit would “inject new momentum” into relations and “deepen mutual political trust."

China’s efforts to develop closer relations with other Pacific governments have largely failed.

The Biden administration has responded by announcing plans to reopen an American Embassy in the Solomon Islands.

Biden convened a summit of Pacific Island leaders in September to unveil a strategy that included cooperation in climate change, maritime security and preventing overfishing.

Biden promised $810 million in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130 million to address the effects of climate change.

Agreements signed Monday by Solomon Islands and Chinese officials included an implementation plan for police cooperation through 2025.

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