Australia will provide the Solomon Islands with more than $17 million for the Pacific Games, as a slate of ministers and top US diplomats tour the region to combat Chinese influence.
Pacific Minister Pat Conroy has met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to discuss the Sino-Solomons security pact signed earlier this year.
The minister says he received reassurances Australia remained the island nation’s security partner of choice and there wouldn’t be foreign military bases or a persistent military presence in the Solomons.
“The prime minister repeated his assurance Australia is the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands, and the Solomon Islands government would come to Australia first if there are any gaps that need to be filled,” Mr Conroy told reporters in Honiara on Tuesday.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Mr Sogavare’s snub of a US memorial service for a key World War II battle was a “missed opportunity”.
“The events all day on Sunday raised up the way Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom worked with Solomon Islanders, both civilians, coast watchers,” she told media in New Zealand on Tuesday.
“Solomon Islanders paid a big price for the Battle of Guadalcanal along with all of our soldiers.
“I told him I was sorry for him because I thought he missed an opportunity to raise up that strong partnership and the fight for freedom that allowed the Solomon Islands to exist as it is today. So it’s really sorrow for him.”
Ms Sherman also sought to downplay competition with Beijing in the region after failing to mention China in her opening remarks ahead of a bi-lateral meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Canberra on Monday.
“It’s not so much a battle. Countries try to have relations with every country they believe can help them move forward.
“The United States does not ask any country to choose between the US and China or any other country and China.
“What we do ask is that we all have a level playing field that the rules-based order.”
Mr Conroy didn’t directly speak to China’s influence in the region during his trip when asked by reporters.
“That’s a question for the government of China about their interest in this region,” he said.
The minister and Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond also met with local police minister, Anthony Veke.
The opposition spokesman for countering foreign interference added Australia needed to focus on strengthening democratic institutions in the Pacific as a way to counter clandestine interference.
“We play by the rules and we’re unwilling to do things some other countries are willing to do and that makes competing all around the world a challenge,” Senator James Paterson told AAP.
“It comes back to investing in those democratic institutions because, ultimately, if the people of the Pacific are in charge of their own destiny, I think they’ll make the right choices in their own national interest.
This would require a consistent presence in the region and the ability to deploy quickly to counter any disturbances, such as when Australia sent federal police to Honiara amid riots at the end of 2021, Senator Paterson said.
“It’s an ever-present challenge and requires us to be always there, to be always accessible, to be always supportive. If we continue to do that, it’ll make a difference,” he said.
He said it was clear Australia’s investment in supporting Papua New Guinea’s elections was having a “real tangible benefit”.
US President Joe Biden is due to host leaders of Pacific island nations at the White House in September.
Australia’s Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones is heading to Vanuatu for a meeting of economic ministers this week.