Solomon Islands leader defends possible China security deal, calls backlash 'very insulting'

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 9, 2019.

(CNN)The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands on Tuesday defended the country's possible security deal with China, hitting back at critics and calling their protests "very insulting."

The Pacific Island nation confirmed last week it would expand its security relationship with China -- prompting alarm from regional leaders wary of Beijing's growing reach.
"We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs," Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in Parliament Tuesday, addressing the international backlash. "Our security approach is not done in a vacuum and not without due consideration to all our partners."
    "The Security Treaty is at the request of the Solomon Islands, and we have not been pressured ... in any way by our new friends," he added. "We have no intention, Mr Speaker, of pitching into any geopolitical power struggle."
      He also criticized Australian media over its reports that Beijing is ​allegedly planning to build a military base in the Solomon Islands -- a potential first for China in the Pacific region regarded by Canberra as its backyard.
      In a statement Friday, the Prime Minister's office said the government was "working to sign off and implement a number of development frameworks with China to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments."
      Sogavare further defended this move Tuesday, telling Parliament, "In moving towards our security needs, we need to diversify ... we are a country that has limited security capabilities and it is clear we will constantly need support."
        But the potential arrangement has sparked concern from several countries including the United States and Australia, which have become increasingly wary of the expanding footprint of an assertive China in the region.
        For decades, Australia has enjoyed strong influence among the Pacific Islands as a wealthy donor assisting the aid-dependent nations. But in recent years, China has also become a major player in the region, investing billions of dollars -- making these tiny islands the center of a heated power struggle.
        These tensions have only risen as China ramped up its maritime capabilities and militarized islands in the South China Sea.
        Australia has an existing security agreement with the Solomon Islands, active since 2018, which allows Australian police, defense and civilian personnel to deploy rapidly to the islands in the event of security threats.
        The Solomon Islands government noted that agreement in its statement Friday, saying it will "continue to preserve its Security Agreement with Australia as it develops and deepen its relations with all partners including with China."
        Australia's Defense Minister Peter Dutton voiced concern Friday that any security arrangement with Beijing could eventually lead to China expanding its military presence in the region -- a stance reiterated Monday by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
        Why China is challenging Australia for influence over the Pacific Islands