Washington is raising alarms about a defense deal between China and the tiny Solomon Islands, which was announced by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (L) last month. A delegation of U.S. officials is visiting the Solomons Islands this week. File Photo by Thomas Peter/EPA-EFE/Pool
April 19 (UPI) -- The United States is raising alarm over a security deal in the works between China and the Solomon Islands as top diplomats head to the South Pacific in an effort to respond to Beijing's growing influence in the region.
Kurt Campbell, National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will lead a delegation to the Solomon Islands this week, the White House announced Monday.
They'll also visit Fiji and Papua New Guinea on the trip, which comes on the heels of news that the Solomon Islands had initialed the draft of a bilateral security deal with China.
A leak of the agreement said that Beijing would be able to send naval deployments and security forces to the island nation, which is located 1,200 miles from Australia. The deal triggered an immediate backlash in the region, with the governments of Australia and New Zealand expressing concern over the Chinese military setting up in their backyard.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told parliament last month that there "is no intention to ask China to build a military base" and said his tiny nation of 700,000 is "not pressured in any way by our new friends."
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday, however, that the deal would raise tensions in the region and may not be in the best interests of the Solomons.
"Despite the Solomon Islands government's comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of [Chinese] military forces to the Solomon Islands," Price said at a press briefing. "We believe that signing such an agreement could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region."
The Solomon Islands has been at the center of a growing geopolitical rivalry ever since Sogavare suddenly switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. That move, which was accompanied by allegations of kickbacks and bribery, inflamed local disputes and ultimately led to days of deadly rioting last November.
An Australia-led delegation of peacekeepers from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji were deployed to help quell the unrest.
Last week, Australia sent Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja to the Solomon Islands to ask the country to scrap the defense deal.
"We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region's security frameworks," Seselja said in a statement.
Washington has also turned an increasing focus on the region in response to Beijing's influence. In February, the State Department announced it would reopen its embassy in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, after almost 30 years.