Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told AFP on Thursday he has asked for a “review” of a long-standing defense pact with Australia, just months after signing a security deal with Beijing.
Sogavare said after meeting Australia’s defense minister that he wanted to re-evaluate a 2017 treaty that underpins security relations.
“I have asked for a review of the Australian Treaty with Solomon Islands,” Sogavare said.
“We have an existing treaty which allows Australian police, defense and associated civilian personnel to deploy rapidly to Solomon Islands on a ‘need’ basis and where both countries consent.”
“It covers a range of foreseeable security threats, including natural disasters, and allows for third-country contributions. I asked for this to be reviewed,” he said, without specifying which changes he would request.
Sogavare secretly negotiated a security pact with China recently, allowing Beijing’s forces to deploy on the islands and significantly boosting security ties.
The pact caused consternation in Australia and the United States and turbo-charged a battle for influence across the Pacific Islands.
The United States signed its own security agreement with Solomon Islands’ neighbor, Papua New Guinea in May, winning the right to develop and operate out of bases there.
While Washington and its allies have been the dominant power in the region since at least World War II, China is increasingly keen to secure a military foothold and undermine US primacy.
Sogavare’s latest comments will fuel concern that Solomon Islands is preparing to drift closer into China’s orbit.
He is expected to travel to Beijing within days.
But Sogavare told AFP he was not trying to downgrade relations with Australia.
“You know, Australia remains a significant aid donor and a major development partner to Solomon Islands and we want to further enhance that relationship,” he said.
“I have also asked for more collaboration from Australia, especially in terms of development among others.”
Australian officials sought to frame the request for a review as an opportunity.
“We’re excited about it,” defense minister Richard Marles told reporters in Honiara.
It is “now a number of years old. And it really does need to be reviewed to take into account the contemporary security environment and the contemporary assistance that has been provided by Australia,” Marles said.
“Obviously the relationship that Solomons has with China is a matter for Solomons and China. Our focus is simply on being the very best partner that we can be,” he said.
Marles also offered to keep Australian peacekeeping troops in Solomon Islands until the Pacific Games are held in November and until delayed elections take place in April next year.
“From the perspective of Australia, we stood ready for that support to be provided for as long as possible,” he said.