The Solomon Islands foreign minister says the country signed on to an agreement between the United States and its Pacific Island neighbors only after indirect references to China were removed.
The U.S. and Pacific Island leaders signed an historic 11-point Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership last week during a summit hosted by President Joe Biden at the White House. The declaration covers such key issues as sustainable development, tackling climate change, preserving security of the Pacific region and trade.
The Solomon Islands sent a diplomatic note to the regional Pacific Islands Forum ahead of the summit saying it would not sign the declaration.
Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele told reporters Tuesday in Wellington, New Zealand, the initial draft of the accord included “some references that we were not comfortable with.” When pressed further, Manele said the references involved China.
“There was some references that put us in a position that we would have to choose sides, and we don’t want to be placed in a position that we have to choose sides,” he said.
The Solomon Islands’ initial refusal to sign the declaration came just five months after it signed a security agreement with China that has raised concerns in the United States and Australia that Beijing would establish a military presence in the Solomon Islands, located less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia. A draft of the agreement that emerged on social media included a provision that could allow Beijing to send armed police and soldiers to the Solomon Islands, as well as base its navy ships off the Solomon’s coast.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted he would not allow the creation of a Chinese military base, saying the deal instead will help provide domestic security.
During the summit, President Biden announced more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific Islands. The U.S. has provided upwards of $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Islands over the past decade, according to a senior administration official.
The U.S. also pledged to recognize the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, following appropriate consultations. While both Cook Islands and Niue have full constitutional independence from New Zealand and act as independent countries, the U.S. considers them as self-governing territories and has not established formal diplomatic relations.
Biden will appoint the first U.S. envoy to the regional Pacific Islands Forum. USAID will reestablish its mission in Suva, Fiji, by next September.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.