Solomon Islands Leader Visits Beijing, Highlighting US-China Rivalry in South Pacific

BEIJING (AP) -- Leaders of the Solomon Islands and China on Monday promised to expand relations that have fueled unease in Washington and Australia about Beijing's influence in the South Pacific.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the country's No. 2 leader, Premier Li Qiang. Sogavare and Li presided over the signing of agreements on police, economic and technical cooperation.

"We are here to further boost relations," Sogavare told Li following a ceremony at which a Chinese military band played the Solomon Islands national anthem.

The Solomon Islands, 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Australia, has been China's biggest success in a campaign to expand its presence in the South Pacific. Sogavare's government switched official recognition in 2019 to Beijing from Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy claimed by the mainland's ruling Communist Party as part of its territory.

"Solomon Islands, sir, has a lot to learn from China's development experience," Sogavare told Li. He welcomed an opportunity for dialogue to enhance "bilateral interaction and cooperation."

The two governments "have decided to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual respect and common development," Li said. "The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands has developed rapidly, and we can now say that it is very fruitful."

The Solomon Islands signed a secretive security agreement with Beijing that might have allowed Chinese military forces in the South Pacific. However, Sogavare rejected suggestions his government might give Beijing a military foothold in the region.

The nearby island nation of Kiribati also switched official relations to Beijing in 2019.

China's foreign ministry said last week Sogavare's visit would "inject new momentum" into relations and "deepen mutual political trust."

China's efforts to develop closer relations with other Pacific governments have largely failed.

The Biden administration has responded by announcing plans to reopen an American Embassy in the Solomon Islands.

Biden convened a summit of Pacific Island leaders in September to unveil a strategy that included climate change, maritime security and preventing overfishing.

Biden promised $810 million in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130 million to address the effects of climate change.

Agreements signed Monday by Solomon Islands and Chinese officials included an implementation plan for police cooperation through 2025.