SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s defence minister is due to meet the leader of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, on Wednesday to discuss security, officials said, on a two-day visit that comes as China takes a bigger role in the Pacific nation’s police force.
Richard Marles, on his first visit to the Solomon Islands as defence minister, was also expected to meet members of the Solomon Islands International Assistance Force, which includes Australian police deployed in 2021 at Sogavare’s request to quell anti-government riots.
Marles, in comments before he arrived in the capital, Honiara, said Australia’s partnership with Solomon Islands was “more important than ever”.
“That is why we will continue to ensure Australia’s engagement across all sectors – including on jobs, health and security – is responsive to Solomon Islands’ needs and fit-for-purpose,” he said in a statement.
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Australia is a major aid donor and has a decades-long security relationship with the Solomon Islands.
China has recently stepped up its funding for infrastructure and last year Sogavare signed a security pact with China, prompting concern in Canberra and Washington about Beijing’s naval ambitions in the strategically located region.
Chinese police have taken an increasing role in training and equipping the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in recent months, the force has indicated in statements.
The Solomon Islands is hosting the Pacific Games in Honiara in November.
China has funded the regional sporting event and built seven stadiums and other venues and Chinese police have pledged to “continuously support” the Solomon’s police “throughout and after” the event.
“Honiara’s stability is very important to Solomon Islands especially with the upcoming Pacific Games 2023,” the China Police Liaison Team’s deputy leader, Xu Qu, said in a statement.
Since May, China has trained police in riot control, combat skills, criminal case investigation, economic crime and route security, and delivered security equipment, police statements show.
Solomon officials said Marles would meet Sogavare after a meeting with Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Robert Birsel)
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