HONIARA, Solomon Islands: The Solomon Islands' prime minister said Tuesday that a contentious security agreement with Beijing was "ready for signing", denying reports that his country had been pressured to allow a Chinese naval base to be built in the Pacific island nation. In an impassioned speech to parliament, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare offered little detail on the final deal beyond saying that there was "no intention whatsoever... to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands".

He dismissed reports in the Australian media that his country was being pressured by China to build the base. "Where does that nonsense come from? The security treaty... is pursued at the request of the Solomon Islands' government," he said.

"We are not pressured in any way by our new friends." A draft version of the agreement, leaked last week, sent shockwaves through Canberra because it included proposals that would allow Chinese security and naval deployments to the Pacific nation. Asked in parliament about the status of the deal, Sogavare said: "We will finalise and finish now. The document is ready for signing." Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week said reports of the deal were "a reminder of the constant pressure and threats that present in our region to our own national security".

Morrison said he had been in contact with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who this week called the draft deal "gravely concerning". But Beijing on Tuesday dismissed all concerns, calling the pact "beyond reproach". Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a routine briefing that China hoped the "relevant countries can earnestly respect the Solomon Islands' sovereignty... instead of condescendingly believing that they have the right to tell the Solomon Islands what it should or should not do".

'Very insulting'

In his speech Tuesday, Sogavare said existing security arrangements with Australia would "remain intact" under the new pact with China, but added that "to achieve our security needs, it is clear that we need to diversify the country's relationship with other countries-and what is wrong with that?"

China's growing influence in the Pacific in recent years has fed into a tense relationship with Australia, as has Canberra's strengthened military ties with the United States and other allies. The prospect of a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific has long been a concern for Australia and the United States because it would allow Beijing to project its power deeper into the region.

Sogavare labelled concern from "many leaders" about China's presence threatening regional security as "unfortunate perceptions". He said that it was "very insulting... to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs" by other nations and condemned those who had leaked the draft pact with China as "lunatics and agents of foreign regimes".

'Partner of choice'

The Solomon Islands were rocked by unrest last November when protesters tried to storm the parliament and then went on a deadly three-day rampage, torching much of Chinatown in the capital Honiara. More than 200 peacekeepers from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were deployed to restore calm and Sogavare managed to avoid being deposed.

Sogavare said Tuesday that Australia and New Zealand would remain the "partner of choice when it comes to the need to call for assistance in critical times". Last year's riots were sparked by a range of tensions in the Solomon Islands, including opposition to Sogavare's rule, inter-island rivalries and high unemployment, but anti-China sentiment in the nation also played a key role. Leaders on the most populous island of Malaita fiercely oppose Sogavare's decision to shift diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, a switch that became a lightning rod for broader frustration about Chinese investment in the Pacific nation. - AFP