Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare has dismissed foreign criticism of the country’s security negotiations with China as “insulting” and called those who leaked the draft agreement “lunatics”, in his first comments to parliament on the proposed treaty.
“We find it very insulting, Mr Speaker, to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs,” Sogavare said on Tuesday.
A leaked draft security agreement being negotiated between China and Solomon Islands has triggered alarm in the Pacific, including in Australia and New Zealand. The two neighbours are worried it could jeopardise regional stability, with China having the opportunity to base navy warships in the Pacific less than 2,000km off the Australian coast.
Sogavare would not give further details on the contents of the security deal, but when pressured later in parliament on how advanced talks were said it was “ready for signing”.
The prime minister took aim at Australian media for implying that China was pressuring the Islands into a treaty, calling the claims “unfounded” and “very insulting”.
A News Corp article late last week also quoted a commentator as saying that Australia “must be willing to invade the Solomon Islands and topple its government if that’s what is necessary to stop a proposed security pact between China and the Pacific nation going ahead”.
Sogavare said: “Discussions in the Australian public media encouraging the invasion of Solomon Islands to force a regime change, Mr Speaker, does nothing to strengthen our bilateral relations. When a helpless mouse is cornered by vicious cats, it will do anything to survive.”
“We welcome any country that is willing to support us in our security space. There is no devious intention, nor secret plan – this is a decision by a sovereign nation that has its national interest at heart,” he added.
The treaty could only be activated at the nation’s request, Sogavare said, adding that it was “utter nonsense” that China’s presence in the region was a threat to security.
“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” he said.
He added that Solomon Islands had previously asked Australia to build a naval base and this was refused, because Australia said it was inappropriate given its defence programme with Papua New Guinea.
Sogavare said he had no intention of “pitching into any geopolitical power struggle,” adding the nation would not “pick sides”.
Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, which partly fuelled discontent that led to riots in the capital, Honiara, in November.
About 200 police and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea arrived in Honiara within days of the riots, at Sogavare’s request, but found themselves in competition with China which also agreed to send police.
Sogavare said he had had conversations with leaders in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji since the document’s leak and commented that the Islands’ traditional security partners are “always important” to them.
“I would like to make it abundantly clear that the Solomon Islands’ security arrangement with Australia remains in place, intact,” he said, adding that New Zealand would also remain a close partner of choice in critical times.
“But in moving forward … to achieve our security needs, it is clear we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners. What is wrong with that?”
Sogavare said the security approach was not done in a vacuum nor without consideration for the country’s partners, adding that it was “sad” that it had been perceived as being insensitive to external issues.
“We are now having this discussion, Mr Speaker, because some lunatics and agents of foreign regimes in the government system have no regard for secrecy. There are people who exist only to undermine the work of legitimate authorities.”
He said Solomon Islands was no different in wanting a peaceful and stable society but that a lack of development, particularly in infrastructure, were affecting national security. “In this context, Solomon Islands will seek partnership with friendly foreign governments.”
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison had a phone call with his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, on Tuesday, with Beijing’s push for a security agreement with Solomon Islands a key issue of concern in the call.
“They discussed the proposed Solomon Islands-China security agreement and their shared concerns about any actions they would undermine the security and stability of the Pacific region. They discussed their ongoing commitment, as members of the Pacific family, to the Solomon Islands Assistance Force,” an Australian readout stated.
Morrison’s call followed talks with his counterparts from Papua New Guinea and Fiji on Monday.
The Australian government did not immediately respond to Sovagare’s speech, in which he also said he was “extremely grateful” for Australia’s “generous” offer last week to build a second patrol boat outpost in the eastern province of Temotu.
But Canberra, whose relationship with Beijing has deteriorated sharply over the past few years and has raised concerns about China’s intentions in the Pacific, has maintained that “the Pacific family” is in the best position to provide security assistance to Solomon Islands.
Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was referring to China on Monday when he said Australia was “not blind to the tactics of other people” who were “trying to restrict our capacity of movement and intimidate us”.
Australia’s high commissioner to Solomon Islands, Lachlan Strahan, said on Monday that Australia had raised its concerns with Solomon Islands about the proposed agreement “regularly and respectfully”.
Growing concerns about China’s military buildup and strategic intentions were also behind Australia’s decision last year to agree the Aukus security partnership with the US and the UK, which includes plans to build at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines.