Australia alarm over China security deal with Solomon Islands

Leaked document indicates pact would allow Beijing to deploy police and troops to the Pacific nation at the government’s request, but also to protect its own nationals and interests.

Australian PM Scott Morrison reviews a group of Solomon Islands police after arriving in the country in 2019
Australia has long nurtured close diplomatic and security ties with the Solomon Islands and Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the capital Honiara shortly in 2019 [File: Darren England/EPA]

Australia’s defence minister said on Friday any move to establish a Chinese military base in neighbouring Solomon Islands would be a concern after a wide-ranging draft security pact between Beijing and Honiara was leaked online.

The proposals – which require the approval of the Solomon Islands’ cabinet – would allow Chinese security and naval deployments to the Pacific island nation.

The country was rocked by three days of rioting last November amid rising tension between the national government under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and the Malaita Provincial Government over the PM’s controversial and unpopular 2019 decision to change diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.

Australia signed its own security pact with the Solomon Islands shortly before Honiara made its diplomatic switch.

“We would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Australia’s Channel Nine in an interview.

“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 deployed forces to the Solomon Islands after Sogavare’s government requested assistance to bring the riots under control. Dutton said 50 police were in the country and would remain there until 2023.

The draft “framework agreement” in many ways mimics the agreement the archipelago nation has with Australia, which has long maintained close political and security ties with the Pacific region. Australia previously led a peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands from 2003 to 2017.

“We would be concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

“Members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security.”

burned out buildings and debris on the streets of Honiara's Chinatown after three days of rioting in November
The Solomon Islands saw three days of rioting in November, fuelled by poverty, unemployment and tensions over the government’s closer ties with Beijing [File: Piringi Charley/AP Photo]

Anna Powles, a security expert at the Massey University of New Zealand, told the AFP news agency the draft agreement was “broad in scope” and contained “several ambiguous and potentially geopolitically ambitious provisions”.

It would allow armed Chinese police and military to deploy at the Solomon Islands’s request to maintain “social order”.

The “forces of China” would also be allowed to protect “the safety of Chinese personnel” and “major projects in the Solomon Islands”.

Without the written consent of the other party, neither would be allowed to disclose the missions publicly.

Crucially, Powles said, the draft agreement also showed “China is seeking logistical supply capabilities and material assets located in the Solomon Islands to support ship visits”.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said security pact discussions between the 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,” he told Australian public broadcaster ABC radio.

The Pacific Island nation of some 800,000 people lies 2,000km (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, whose relationship with Beijing has worsened in recent years.

Dutton rejected suggestions from Australia’s opposition Labor party that the government had “dropped the ball” on the Pacific region and pointed to recent aid provided to Tonga in the wake of a volcanic disaster.

Australia has offered 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.5bn) in infrastructure financing to the Pacific islands to counter China’s growing aid influence, and funded a fibre optic submarine cable connecting the Solomon Islands to Australia, replacing Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s bid in 2018.

Following the 2021 riots, the United States announced it was reopening its embassy in Honiara, which it closed in 1993.

China has since deployed police to train local forces, donated riot equipment and late on Thursday, the Solomon Islands announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding on police cooperation with Beijing.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies