By NICK PERRY
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The U.S. is sending two top officials to the Solomon Islands following a visit last week by an Australian senator over concerns that China could establish a military presence in the South Pacific island nation.
The White House said Monday that later this week, Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will lead a delegation of U.S. government officials to the Solomons, and will also visit Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The move comes after the Solomons and China initialed a draft agreement of a security pact last month, with the Solomons saying they would sign a final version soon.
The draft, which was leaked online, says Chinese warships could stop in the Solomons and China could send police and armed forces there “to assist in maintaining social order.”
The Solomons has sought to downplay the significance of the agreement and says it won’t lead to China establishing a military base there, but many neighboring countries and Western nations remain worried.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the agreement could destabilize the Solomon Islands and would set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific region.
“Despite the Solomon Islands government’s comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of P.R.C. (People’s Republic of China) military forces to the Solomon Islands,” Price said.
The U.S. trip comes after a visit to the Solomons last week by Australian Sen. Zed Seselja, the minister for international development and the Pacific.
Seselja said he met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and asked him to abandon the Chinese agreement.
“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.
The Solomons portrayed the meeting in a more positive light, saying Sogavare and Seselja held productive discussions regarding the security concerns of the Solomon Islands and the wider Pacific region.
Last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele about Washington’s plan to reopen an embassy in the capital, Honiara.
The announcement of reopening the embassy, which has been closed since 1993, came in February before the security pact came to light, but amid already growing concerns about Chinese influence in the strategically important country.