Singapore: Pacific Minister Zed Seselja told Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that he should not sign a security deal with China, and warned that Beijing’s presence could disrupt the region.

In the most blunt comments by an Australian government minister on the security deal to date, Seselja set aside weeks of cautious diplomatic language that maintained the Australian government respected the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands.

“We have respectfully asked Solomon Islands to consider not signing the agreement and to consult with the Pacific family in a spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” Seselja said.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in New Zealand last year. Credit:Getty

The high-stakes meeting followed weeks of careful diplomacy in a bid to get Sogavare to walk out of the deal on its own terms. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that Pacific island nations did not like being told what to do by Australia and were not “under the control or direction of Australia” after being criticized for being caught off guard by the deal in March.

Last week, Australian Secret Service boss Paul Symon and Office of National Intelligence Director General Andrew Shearer met with Sogavare to raise Australia’s concerns. US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Wednesday called on Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele to lobby against the deal on behalf of Washington, and New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta lobbied for other Pacific countries to warn the Solomons against signing the deal.

Loading

But those efforts appeared to have only strengthened Sogavare’s resolve to push the deal forward and elevate China alongside Australia as the Solomons’ key strategic partner on the promise of infrastructure investment in a poor and divided country. The agreement has been initialed by officials, but has yet to be fully signed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Manele.

It is unusual for a foreign government to make such a direct and public request on a deal it is not a party to, but Seselja’s comments on Wednesday underscore the growing desperation in Canberra, Wellington and Washington to ensure the deal is not signed.

The draft agreement released last month contained clauses that could allow Chinese forces to protect Chinese investments in the Solomons and for China to ask its navy ships to be allowed to dock and refuel unless 2000 kilometers off the Australian coast. A Chinese security presence in the region would drain Australian navy resources and threaten Australia’s east coast shipping lanes to Asia in the event of a conflict.