China Tensions Dominate Australia-Solomons Diplomats’ Meeting

(Bloomberg) — Australia used its first face-to-face diplomatic talks with the Solomon Islands since the Pacific nation inked a controversial security agreement with China to outline its “deep concerns” over the new pact.

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Foreign Minister Marise Payne told counterpart Jeremiah Manele in Brisbane on Friday that while Australia respected the Solomons’ sovereignty, she restated “our deep concerns about the security agreement with China, including the lack of transparency.”

“We agreed that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice,” Payne said in a statement on Saturday.

Australia and main ally U.S. have publicly voiced their objections to the agreement, which was signed between China and the Solomons in April. Although a final version of the document has not been made public, a draft version released in March showed Chinese military warships were on track to be allowed a safe harbor just 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the Australian coastline.

Australia’s relationship with China, its largest trading partner, have deteriorated in recent years, with Beijing placing crippling tariffs on Australia’s barley exports, and traders ordered to stop buying commodities including coal, copper and wine.

Meanwhile, diplomats in Canberra and Washington — fearing Beijing’s ultimate goal in the Pacific Islands may be to establish a naval base that would upend their military strategies — have been increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence in the region, including in the Solomons.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative government trails in polls ahead of elections on May 21, has said a Chinese military base in the Solomons would be a “red line” for his government, but has insisted relations with the Pacific nation have not suffered as a result of the agreement.