Last month, a leaked document said the government of the Solomon Islands confirmed it was in talks with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to draft a security deal that would “diversify the country’s security partnership,” and would be signing off on a number of agreements with Beijing “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments and cover humanitarian needs.”
Now, another leak shows that the PRC had discussed with the Solomons the possibility of hosting Chinese military forces in 2020.
This comes despite denials from both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that there would be no Chinese naval or military presence in the region.
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“It will not be in the interest of Solomon Islands to host any naval or military base of any country, because that will immediately make Solomon Islands a military target for other countries,” Sogavare said on April 6, as per The Solomon Times. Sogavare has also repeatedly reassured that his country would never host any foreign military base.
On April 1, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Yi repeated Sogavare’s claims, calling such concerns “groundless and ill-intentioned.
The official leaked document was sent from Avic International Project Engineering Company, a Beijing-based state-owned aviation company, and was addressed to Premier Leslie Kikolo of Isabel Province in the Solomon Islands on Sept. 29, 2020 — showing that Beijing’s plans to establish a military presence in the Solomons were already being discussed as far back as two years ago.
The letter, which was first obtained by news.com.au, was signed by company President Rong Qian and opens with the following paragraph:
“We, AVIC-INTL Project Engineering Company … present this letter to demonstrate our intent to study the opportunity to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’s Liberation Army Navy in Isabel Province with exclusive rights for 75 years.”
Rong also promised extensive vocational training opportunities to be established in the province, with the intention of helping the Solomon Islands improve its “education level and military cooperation with China.”
In addition, the letter said that Chinese warships could stop in the Solomons for “logistical replenishment” and that China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomons “to assist in maintaining social order.”
Concerns across the Pacific
Following news of the Solomon Islands’ security deal with China, both Australia and New Zealand raised concerns with Honiara over the impact of an increased foreign military presence in the region, though both countries have yet to publicly comment on the leaked file from 2020.
When asked by reporters about the security draft on March 26, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “there is great concern across the Pacific family because we are in constant contact with our Pacific family.”
Morrison 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,” Morrison said.
A Chinese military base in the Solomons would place it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also in close proximity to Guam — where the U.S. has set up massive military bases.
China’s growing military network
China so far operates just one acknowledged foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important nation of Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa. Many believe that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been trying to establish an overseas military network – even if they don’t use the term “base.”
The Solomon Islands, home to fewer than 1 million people, lie around 1,240 miles northeast of Australia. The oceanic nation switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to Beijing in 2019 — signaling the PRC regime’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.