The Solomon Islands reveals it is in talks with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to draft a security deal with the world’s second largest economy — a move that has triggered alarms in neighboring Australia and other Western allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to leaked documents, the proposed security arrangements would cover humanitarian needs besides maintaining the rule of law, and could indicate a Chinese military base being set up on the southern part of the island.
The Pacific Island nation of fewer than 1 million people is located 1,240 miles northeast of Australia and switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to Beijing in 2019 — signaling mainland China’s growing influence in the region.
Following months of societal unrest that culminated in violent riots across the country, the small nation has increasingly looked to China for assistance in rebuilding its economy and for military support. Australia’s government also sent troops to the Solomons to quell the riots and re-establish order last November.
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In its first comments on the matter, the Solomon Islands government confirmed it was “diversifying the country’s security partnership including with China,” and would sign off on a number of agreements with Beijing “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments.”
The Solomon Islands did not confirm the details of the leaked draft agreement however, or clarified whether the documents were a finalized version of the deal.
“Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country,” the government said in a statement released on March 24.
Australia and New Zealand express concerns
Following the news, security analysts from both Australia and New Zealand said they had raised concerns with Honiara over the partnership with Beijing. Australia showed particular concern as the Solomons are located in close proximity to it and a growing Chinese military presence could prove troublesome for its democratic government and its allies.
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Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she respected the Pacific island country’s right to make sovereign decisions that would most benefit its government and its people but noted that “we would be particularly concerned by any actions that undermine the stability and security of our region, including the establishment of a permanent presence such as a military base.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Friday, March 25, that he had not spoken to his Solomon Islands counterpart in the 24 hours since news first broke of the security discussions with China but said his country along with New Zealand and the Solomons were part of the “Pacific family,” and said that talks with Honiara would be scheduled for early next week.
China’s growing influence in Indo-Pacific region a ‘grave concern’
Scott also made a point to mention that China’s growing influence in the region was a concern for many. “There are others who may seek to pretend to influence and may seek to get some sort of hold in the region, we are very conscious of that and it is a grave concern,” Scott said.
As a way to ramp efforts in curtailing China’s growing influence in the region, Australia launched its “Pacific Step Up” policy in 2018 as a way to “re-engage with its Pacific family” and increase spending. It also set up a multi-billion dollar infrastructure fund widely seen as a counter to China’s loans and growing spending in the region.
According to a Solomon Islands official, the policing deal with China would “signal a proposal for a broader security agreement covering the military to its cabinet for consideration,” the official told Reuters on March 24.
The source also said that the framework with Beijing could allow China to deploy forces into the Solomons as early as three months from now. In addition, the Pacific nation could also “request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces.”
Another provision in the document states that China could also “make ship visits to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands.”
Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd told reporters on March 25 that the Solomons deal with China was “one of the most significant security developments we have seen in decades” and a defense failure by Australia’s current government to defend its “own territorial waters.”