Solomon Islands confirm security talks with China; Australia and New Zealand concerned

In a photo from Nov 26, 2021, Solomon Islands police guard a checkpoint after days of unrest in Honiara. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Solomon Islands confirmed on Friday (March 25) it was creating a partnership with China to address security threats and ensure a safe environment for investment as part of a diversification of its security relations.

A security pact would be a major inroad for China in a region that US allies Australia and New Zealand have for decades seen as their “back yard”.

Australia and New Zealand have expressed their concern about the impact on regional security of military cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands after a draft document outlining proposed cooperation was leaked this week.

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 a number of agreements with Beijing “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments”.

“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.

The proposed security arrangements with China would cover humanitarian needs besides maintaining the rule of law, it added.

The nation needed to rebuild its economy after recent riots, and would sign an air services agreement with China and increase trade.

A security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, would be preserved as Solomon Islands deepened relations with China, it said.

Australian Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, had been told of Australia’s concern over the discussions with China and Canberra expected there would be “significant pushback in the region”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting on the issue earlier on Friday, said Australia and New Zealand were part of the “Pacific family” and had a history of providing security support and responding to crises.

“There are others who may seek to pretend to influence and may seek to get some sort of hold in the region and we are very conscious of that,” he said.

The Solomon Islands has signed a policing deal with China and will send a proposal for a broader security agreement covering the military to its cabinet for consideration, a Solomons Islands official told Reuters on Thursday.

The proposed security pact with China would match one the Solomon Islands has with Australia that allows for the deployment of armed forces. 

The Australian security treaty was signed before Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.

The potential for Chinese military vessels to be based in Australia's neighbourhood has sparked alarm in Canberra, which clashed verbally with Beijing last month after a Chinese navy ship passing through Australia's northern economic exclusion zone aimed a laser pointer at an Australian surveillance plane.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said in an interview with Channel Nine on Friday that Australia had 50 police in the Solomon Islands at the request of Honiara and they would remain there until 2023.

"We would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government," he said.

"We want peace and stability in the region. We don't want unsettling influences and we don't want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out in the region."

Australia's High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands Lachlan Strahan said on Twitter he had met Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Wednesday, a day before the security pact draft was leaked online, to pledge A$21 million (S$21 million) in aid, and the construction of two wharves for Solomon Island patrol boats.

Australia's federal police commissioner had also travelled to Honiara to meet his counterpart in January, after Australia took part in a multinational policing force in November last year to restore civil order after riots, at the request of Sogavare.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said security pact discussions between Solomon Islands and China were "one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it's one that is adverse to Australia's national security interests".

The draft agreement would make Honiara available to Chinese naval and intelligence ships, he said.

"When you've got a country that is as close to Australia's own territorial shores as the Solomon Islands...this is a big change in Australia's immediate strategic environment," Mr Rudd told ABC radio.

The Solomon Islands has a population of less than a million people and lies 2,000km northeast of Australia, which has experienced worsening diplomatic ties with Beijing.

Canberra had adhered to a doctrine for decades, under the ANZUS treaty with the United States, to keep Pacific island countries compatible with Australian and US security interests, Mr Rudd said.

Mr Dutton rejected suggestions from the Opposition Labor party that Australia had "dropped the ball" on support to the Pacific region, and pointed to recent aid provided to Tonga in the wake of a volcanic disaster.

He said any move to establish a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be concerning.  

“We want peace and stability in the region. We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out,” Mr Dutton told Channel Nine.  

Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles said the Pacific should be the focus of Australia's foreign policy, so Australia was the "natural partner of choice when it comes to security".

Australia will hold a general election in May.

Australia has offered A$2 billion in infrastructure financing to the Pacific islands to counter China's growing aid influence.

Australia funded a fibre optic submarine cable connecting Solomon Islands to Australia, replacing Chinese telecommunications company Huawei's bid in 2018, over concerns that cables laid by China would jeopardise regional security.

China has imposed a series of trade sanctions on Australian exports ranging from wine to coal tensions between the two countries have worsened in recent years.

Over in New Zealand, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement that Pacific partners should be transparent in their actions.

“Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, however developments within this purported agreement could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security,” she said.

The United States said last month it would open a US embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking military relations there.

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