Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has declared his country’s security tie-up with China will not allow the superpower to host a military base there and make his citizens “targets for potential military strike”.
Mr Sogavare also said Australia remained the island nation’s “security partner of choice” and he would call on China for security personnel only if there was a “gap” that Australia could not meet.
Speaking to The Guardian in his first media interview since signing the controversial security deal with Beijing earlier this year, Mr Sogavare said on Thursday it was time for the world to “trust us”.
“The moment we establish a foreign military base, we immediately become an enemy. And we also put our country and our people as targets for potential military strikes,” he said.
“There is no military base, nor any other military facility or institutions, in the agreement.
“That’s a very important point that we continue to reiterate to the family in the region.”
The Solomons’ agreement signed with Beijing in April raised fears in Australia of a permanent Chinese military facility within 2000 kilometres of the Queensland coast.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also labelled the move “gravely concerning”.
At the height of the spat, Mr Sogavare railed against Australia in parliament, accusing it of hypocrisy and “souring” relations.
Australia and New Zealand have since urged the Solomons leader to instead turn to them, as Pacific Islands Forum powers, for their security needs.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Ms Ardern held bilateral meetings with Mr Sogavare in Suva on Wednesday during the Pacific Islands Forum.
Mr Albanese described his meeting with Mr Sogavare as “very constructive”, stressing “the interests of Australia would not be served by having a military base so close to where Australia is”.
The body language between the two leaders certainly suggested warming relations, with Mr Sogavare greeting his Australian counterpart with a warm embrace, saying “ahhh, I need a hug”.
Ms Ardern said she had spoken frankly with Mr Sogavare of her concerns, saying they found “common ground” on the need to limit militarisation in the region.
This week’s leaders’ summit has been soaked in geopolitical tension between China and the US, who have each shown heightened interest in the region.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared “the global and geopolitical landscape is hotly competitive” in his opening address.
“We are seeing a multipolar system emerge, all clamouring to shape the world in their favour,” he said.
“We have seen this in our region in the past few months.”
The US was invited to address the forum, with Vice President Kamala Harris delivering a virtual address on Wednesday.
China was discovered to have sent two officials to watch the speech, claiming it broke no rules in doing so.
“Chinese representatives have been invited to attend relevant meetings and events,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Mr Wang downplayed the perceived diplomatic snub to China – which did not, unlike the US, receive an invitation to address the summit – saying Ms Harris’ address was a speech to a “meeting on fisheries”.
Ms Harris announced a fishing deal that will send $US600 million ($890 million) to Pacific coffers, new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, and further engagement.
“We recognise that in recent years the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve … we are going to change that,” she told the meeting.