Last month, the Solomon Islands revealed it was in talks with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to draft a security deal — a move that has triggered alarms in neighboring Australia, New Zealand and other Western allies in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
The Pacific Island nation of fewer than 1 million people is located 1,240 miles northeast of Australia and switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019 — an indicator of Beijing’s growing influence.
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Australia on high alert
Following news of the confirmed security draft, Australia and the United States have begun stepping up diplomatic outreach to the Solomons.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on April 13 that his minister for International Development in the Pacific region, Zed Seselja, had flown to the Solomon Islands the day before to meet with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on the security pact the country signed with China.
During these talks, Seselja said he asked Sogavare to abandon the Chinese agreement.
“We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” Seselja said in a statement yesterday.
Seselija’s trip took place on the same day that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele about Washington’s plan to reopen an embassy in its capital of Honiara.
The re-establishment of the U.S. embassy, which has been closed since 1993, came in February before the security pact was announced. However, there had already been concerns about China’s growing military presence in the region.
China’s global outreach a concern for many
According to leaked documents, the proposed security arrangements between China and the Solomons would cover humanitarian needs and assist the island in “diversifying its security outreach and foreign investments,” but also revealed that the PRC had intentions of building a military base there as early as 2020.
The leaked letter, which was first obtained by news.com.au, was signed by company President Rong Qian 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.
“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,” the letter read.
Following the leak, both the PRC Foreign Ministry and Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare denied that there would be any Chinese naval or military presence in the country.
“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 told The Solomon Times on April 6.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described PRC cooperation with the Solomons as being based on “the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit” and in line with international law and practice.
“It is conducive to the social stability and lasting peace and safety of Solomon Islands and will help promote peace, stability and development of Solomon Islands and the rest of South Pacific region,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing on April 13.
U.S seeks to exert more dominance in the region
Following months of societal unrest that culminated in violent riots across the country, the Solomons have increasingly aligned with Beijing 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.
A Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand but also in close proximity to Guam — which houses massive U.S. military bases.
Following Australia’s meeting with Sogavare, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said the U.S. was seeking to increase its influence in the Solomon Islands before China becomes “strongly embedded within the region.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the call between Sherman and Manele touched on “our joint efforts to broaden and deepen engagement between our countries,” in addition to the plans to reopen the American embassy.