Solomons' PM contender vows to abolish China security pact

solomons' pm contender vows to abolish china security pact

The hand counting of votes is under way in Solomon Islands, where a Wednesday election has put the Pacific nation’s relationship with China in focus

A leading contender to become the Solomon Islands’ next prime minister has vowed to rip up a security pact with China, as the Pacific nation began counting votes Thursday in a pivotal general election.

solomons' pm contender vows to abolish china security pact

Members of the Solomons International Assistance Force stand guard at the entrance of a vote counting centre in Honiara

“If we are in government, we will abolish the security treaty,” Peter Kenilorea told AFP from his village base on the island of Malaita.

“We don’t think that it’s beneficial to the Solomon Islands.”

Relations with China are a central issue in the Solomon Islands’ fiercely contested and keenly watched election, which took place on Wednesday.

The vote is being seen in part as a referendum on China’s efforts to stamp its mark on the region.

With vote counting already under way, Kenilorea’s comments highlight the stakes for Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region.

Incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has championed deeper ties with Beijing as a way of developing what is one of the poorest nations in the world.

The centrepiece of Sogavare’s embrace was a contentious 2022 security pact that has seen Chinese police deployed to the island and which critics say paves the way for a possible Chinese military base.

In contrast, Sogavare’s rivals like Kenilorea advocate rekindling ties with “traditional partners” like Australia, the United States and Taiwan.

“We don’t have natural enemies,” Kenilorea said, lamenting the fact that the Solomons has become a focal point for competition between the world’s two largest military and economic powers — China and the United States.

“It has put us on the map for the wrong reasons. To raise tensions unneccessarily here, in the geopolitical scheme of things, is something we don’t really need,” he said.

– ‘Blatantly misleading’ –

Those tensions were on clear display Thursday as ballots were trucked into a heavily guarded counting centre in the capital Honiara, watched over by international teams of uniformed Fijian soldiers and Australian police.

Startling and unproven claims of foreign interference have upped the ante for a vote billed as one of the nation’s most crucial in a generation.

State-backed Chinese news outlets have pushed reports that the United States might orchestrate riots to block Sogavare from returning to power.

US Ambassador Ann Marie Yastischock said such rumours were “blatantly misleading”.

“We strongly refute allegations being made in known propaganda outlets that claim USAID and the US Government has sought to influence the upcoming election in Solomon Islands,” she said in a statement.

For now, the tensions have not developed into unrest.

Chief electoral officer Jasper Anisi said that “everything is peaceful” so far — no mean feat in a nation where elections have often spilled over into violence.

But hand counting the paper votes is only the start of an arduous electoral process.

Once the parliament’s 50 members are finally elected, they will begin bartering with each other behind closed doors to cobble together a ruling coalition.

Only once the dust has settled from this will a prime minister emerge.

sft-arb/djw/cwl

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