Chinese firm signs deal to lease island from Solomons

HONIARA (Solomon Islands) • A Chinese company signed an agreement to lease an entire isle in the Solomon Islands a day after Beijing recruited the Pacific nation as its latest ally in the strategically important region, according to documents obtained by Agence France-Presse yesterday.

The leaked papers reveal that the Solomons' Central Province made a "strategic cooperation agreement" on Tulagi island, which has the type of deep-water harbour coveted by the military, with the state-owned China Sam Group on Sept 22.

A day previously, China and the Solomons officially established diplomatic relations after Beijing persuaded the impoverished Pacific nation to sever ties with arch-rival Taiwan and become its ally.

Tulagi, an island about 2 sq km with a population of 1,200, is the site of a former Japanese naval base and was the scene of fierce fighting in World War II.

The agreement with China Sam mentions developing a refinery on the island, but its potential for dual use as a Chinese military base is expected to raise concerns with the United States and Australia.

"Party A (Central Province) is willing to first lease the whole Tulagi island and the surrounding islands to Party B (China Sam) for the development of the special economic zone," the agreement says.

It goes on to say the deal covers "any other industry that is suitable for development, including oil and gas development".

China Sam said in a statement issued yesterday that it was committed to cooperating with the Solomons in a number of areas, including trade, infrastructure, fisheries and tourism.

Mr Jonathan Pryke, director of Sydney-based foreign policy think-tank the Lowy Institute's Pacific programme, said it was not unusual for China to promise such special economic zones to developing nations that were desperate for investment.

"The fear is that these zones can in turn create enclaves of Chinese operations that could then grow over time into some kind of permanent strategic facility," he said.

"The island in question in Solomon Islands has deep-water anchorage so it could have such strategic uses down the road."

Taiwan was previously the Solomons' largest ally in the Pacific region. The Solomons' move to switch recognition to China was seen as a major diplomatic coup for Beijing.

However, China Sam's arrangement with Central Province may count for little as it has not been approved by the central government in Honiara.

Central's Premier Stanley Manetiva played down its impact in an interview with Radio New Zealand. "To be honest here, leasing Tulagi will not be possible," he said. "Nothing will eventuate on the agreement."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline 'Chinese firm signs deal to lease island from Solomons'. Print Edition | Subscribe