The United States says it is aware of China's announcement that it has signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, renewing concerns that the deal opens the door for the deployment of Chinese military forces to the Pacific island nation.
"We are concerned by the lack of transparency and unspecified nature of this agreement, which follows a pattern of China offering shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation in fishing, resource management, development assistance and now security practices,” said a spokesperson from the White House National Security Council (NSC).
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing Tuesday that the agreement was recently signed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele.
"It seems that China announced this unliterally, given the reports of the agreement appear to have come from China rather than the Solomon Islands government,” said the NSC spokesperson. “The reported signing does not change our concerns, and that of regional allies and partners, and it does not change our commitment to a strong relationship with the region.”
In Beijing, Chinese officials accused the U.S. and Australia of "deliberately exaggerating tensions” and that any attempts to interfere are “doomed to fail.”
This week, White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink are leading officials from the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to deepen "enduring ties with the region" and ensure the U.S. partnerships "deliver prosperity, security, and peace across the Pacific Islands and the Indo-Pacific."
The implications of the security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China are expected to be high on the agenda.
According to a leaked draft of the agreement, China could send armed police and military forces if requested by the Solomon Islands government. China could also be allowed to base its navy ships off the coast of the Pacific Island nation.
"We understand the Solomon Islands and the PRC (People's Republic of China) are discussing a broad security-related agreement building on recently signed police cooperation," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a briefing Monday.
"Despite the Solomon Islands government's comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployments of PRC military forces to the Solomon Islands. We believe that signing such an agreement could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and will set concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region."
Australia and New Zealand have had long-standing law enforcement and security ties with the Solomon Islands. An Australia-led multinational peacekeeping force from Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea was sent to Honiara, the island nation's capital, following the outbreak of riots last November.
A goal of the visit will be to share perspectives and concerns about how the security agreement between the Solomons and China may threaten current regional security paradigms, Price added.
In early April, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said his country would not invite China to establish a military base. China also denied it seeks a military foothold there.
Former U.S. officials said the U.S. must increase its support to the Asia-Pacific region to fend off China's growing influence.
In an interview with VOA Mandarin, Catherine Ebert-Gray, the former U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, highlighted the strategic location of the Solomon Islands.
"Solomon Islands is a transit point for a lot of cargo that moves throughout the south part of the Pacific," she said. "It is also important to the navigation not only of those sea vessels, but of aircraft, many of which from Australia and New Zealand need to go through that territory to go north to Asia, or from the United States, to go to parts of the Pacific and parts of Asia."
"More than half of the tuna fish of the world come from that region of the world. So the freedom of navigation of fishing vessels is critical," she added.
The U.S. is also ramping up people-to-people ties with the Solomon Islands as the Peace Corps resumes operations in the South Pacific nation after nearly a 20-year pause.
Also on Tuesday, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is heading to Brussels to consult with European allies on China and a strategy to ramp up diplomatic outreach to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Sherman is leading the delegation on U.S.-EU Dialogue on China Thursday, and the U.S.-EU consultations on the Indo-Pacific on Friday.
VOA Mandarin and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.