Australia’s foreign affairs minister will meet the prime minister of Solomon Islands in Honiara on Friday, attempting to mend ties after the Pacific country signed a security agreement with China.
Penny Wong will be the first Australian minister to travel to Solomon Islands since China announced the deal during the Australian election campaign – an agreement that alarmed officials in Australia, New Zealand and the US.
Wong said she would first travel to New Zealand for talks with her counterpart, Nanaia Mahuta, about “ways we can work together to make the most of the new energy and resources the Australian government is bringing to the Pacific”.
On Friday she would fly to Solomon Islands for meetings with the country’s prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, and several cabinet ministers.
“We are committed to deepening our cooperation with Solomon Islands, as we work together to face shared challenges and achieve our shared goals, including on climate change,” Wong said on Wednesday.
“I look forward to discussing the ways we can continue to make progress on pandemic recovery, economic development and labour mobility priorities, and addressing our shared security interests.”
Solomon Islands will be the fourth Pacific country the new foreign affairs minister has visited since taking office – her first stops were Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – but could potentially involve the most difficult conversations.
China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands – which is 1,600km from Cairns – became a topic of intense controversy during the Australian election campaign.
Wong had branded it the worst Australian foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the second world war, with a leaked draft showing it would give China an avenue to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.
Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands” and maintain social order.
A leading Solomon Islands official defended the deal in an interview with the Guardian this week, reiterating that the country had no intention of allowing China to set up a permanent military presence.
Collin Beck, the permanent secretary of foreign affairs, also said Australia should question whether it had been “fair” to Solomon Islands in its intense scrutiny of the deal.
The former Australian government sent a junior minister, Zed Seselja, to Honiara on 12-13 April to ask Sogavare “respectfully” to consider not proceeding with the proposed deal – but Beijing announced a week later that it had been signed.
The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Australia and the US shared the same “red line” when it came to opposing a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands, and China was exerting “enormous pressure” on Pacific island countries.
But Sogavare accused the Australian government of hypocrisy for criticising secrecy surrounding the terms of the deal.
He said Australia’s own Aukus agreement for nuclear-powered submarines was not transparent but he “did not become theatrical and hysterical”.
Sogavare said Solomon Islands was being treated like a kindergarten child and it was wrong for countries to threaten “military intervention”.
Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, met the police minister of Solomon Islands, Anthony Veke, on the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore on Sunday in an attempt to begin repairing the relationship.