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U.S. officials land in Solomons to discuss China pact concerns

By NICK PERRY, Associated Press
Published: April 22, 2022, 8:16am

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A senior U.S. delegation arrived Friday in the Solomon Islands to express its concern that China could send military forces to the South Pacific nation and destabilize the region.

The visit comes days after China and the Solomon Islands confirmed they had signed a security pact, a development which has alarmed neighboring countries and Western allies who fear a military buildup in the region.

The U.S. delegation is led by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

During the visit, the U.S. will also discuss plans to reopen an embassy in the capital, Honiara, as it tries to increase its presence in the strategically important country amid growing concerns about Chinese influence. The embassy has been closed since 1993.

The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for China to send in military forces, U.S. officials said.

“We do not believe importing security forces from the People’s Republic of China and their methods will help Solomon Islands,” the statement by the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea said. “Instead, doing so will fuel local, regional, and international tensions and increase concerns over Beijing’s expansion of its internal security apparatus to the Pacific.”

It added that the U.S. worries about what implications the pact will have for the autonomy of the Solomons.

A draft of the pact, which was leaked online, said Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment and that China could send police and armed forces there “to assist in maintaining social order.”

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The Solomons and China have not released the final version of the agreement.

In an address to lawmakers this week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the pact wouldn’t undermine the peace and harmony of the region. He said it was about strengthening the nation’s internal security.

“Let me assure the people of Solomon Islands that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” he said.

Sogavare has said his government will not let China build a military base, a development that many fear.

China says the pact is about helping the Solomons maintain social order and providing humanitarian assistance. China says it’s not trying to establish a military foothold in the South Pacific.

The U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea said that the response to plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomons had been “overwhelmingly positive.”

The U.S. delegation made previous stops in Fiji and Papua New Guinea where it also discussed the Solomons agreement and security concerns, as well as other topics including climate change and pandemic assistance.

The embassy in Papua New Guinea said that the signing of the agreement with China doesn’t change U.S. bonds with the people of Solomon Islands.

It urged China to release more details about the agreement to be transparent on security matters that have raised concerns throughout the region.