Relations between China and the Solomon Islands have warmed in recent months, with the US and Australia expressing concern over a security pact signed last month

Honiara (AFP) - The Solomon Islands’ prime minister dismissed criticism of a new maritime investment deal with China on Wednesday, saying there was nothing “sinister” in the draft agreement.

The new agreement, a copy of which has been leaked to the media, comes after a controversial security pact was signed last month.

The pact sparked alarm in Australia and the United States, which feared it could lead to Beijing securing a military foothold in the South Pacific. Honiara has ruled out hosting a Chinese military base.

On Wednesday, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare shrugged off criticism of the separate leaked memorandum of understanding on maritime investment, describing it as a “normal bilateral development initiative” that is yet to be formalised.

“There is nothing sinister nor trivial about the Blue Economy Memorandum of Understanding,” his office said in a statement.

A day earlier, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had expressed concern regarding the memorandum, which covers undersea cables, port wharves, shipbuilding and other areas.

Morrison said he was “very concerned, as many other Pacific leaders are, about the interference and intrusion of the Chinese Government into these types of arrangements”.

The Solomons’ warming ties with China have been a key issue in Australia’s election campaign since a draft of the security agreement with China was first leaked on social media in March.

That draft allowed for Chinese naval deployments in the Solomon Islands, eliciting a warning from the United States that it would “respond accordingly” if China installed a military base in the Pacific archipelago.

In April, Solomon Islands PM Sogavare said that his government would not allow a Chinese military base to be built in his country “under its watch”.

The latest leaked maritime investment deal, dated just “2022”, covered investment in wharves, shipbuilding and ship repair, offshore gas and oil exploration and other “blue economy” industries.

Sogavare’s Wednesday statement said the memorandum of understanding was a broad document, which would be followed by a more detailed agreement.