News that the Solomon Islands is looking to sign a security pact with China has created shockwaves in Australia and New Zealand, given the possibility it could lead to a Chinese naval facility being set up in the South Pacific.
The news was confirmed by the Solomons on Friday, which said it was creating a partnership with China to tackle security threats and ensure a safe environment for investment as it diversifies security relations.
The move has stirred alarm among politicians in Canberra, who say the security tie-up risks destabilising the Pacific and are already vowing to push to try to stop such an agreement being signed.
A security pact with the Pacific island nation would be a major inroad for China in a region that US allies Australia and New Zealand have for decades seen as their “backyard”.
Both have expressed concern about the impact on regional security of military cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands after a draft document outlining the proposed cooperation was leaked this week.
On Friday Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the Solomons to remember Australia’s work in the Pacific, while New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta warned that the proposed security deal could “destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security. This would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbours,” she said.
A draft copy of a security MOU circulated on social media this week states it would cover Chinese police, armed police and the military assisting the Solomon Islands on social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.
The draft also provides for Chinese naval ships to carry out logistical replenishments in Solomon Islands, fuelling anxiety in Canberra it would be a step towards a Chinese military base in the region.
“Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country,” the Solomon Islands government said in its first public comment on the matter.
In a statement it said it was “diversifying the country’s security partnership, including with China” and was working to sign a number of agreements with it “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments.”
The Solomons has already signed a policing deal with China and on Thursday a local official said a security agreement with China covering the military would be sent to its cabinet for consideration.
The arrangement would cover humanitarian needs besides maintaining the rule of law, the Solomon Islands said, adding that it needed to rebuild its economy after recent riots and would sign an air services pact with China and increase trade.
A security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, would be preserved as the Solomon Islands deepened ties with China, it added.
Australian Minister for 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 told reporters.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told ABC Radio the proposed pact was “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 Pacific Island nation of fewer than a million people, 2,000 km (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, signalling China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
New Zealand’s 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,” she said. “However, developments within this purported agreement could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security.”
Australia and New Zealand have police in the Solomon Islands, part of a multinational contingent invited by Sogavare to restore order after riots in November.
The Solomon Islands resident who published online the leaked draft of the security agreement said the document had come from a police source.
It covers Chinese police and military assisting with social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said any move to establish a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be a matter of concern.
“We want peace and stability in the region,” Dutton told Channel Nine. “We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China.”
Last month, the United States said it would open a US embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking to strengthen military relations there.
In Beijing on Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called on relevant parties to look at security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands “objectively and calmly and not over-interpret it.”
He was responding to a question about the new security agreement asked at a regular media briefing.
“Some politicians on the Australian side have published some fallacies of so-called ‘Chinese coercion’ and deliberately created an atmosphere of tension, which is extremely irresponsible and does not help regional stability and development,” Wang added.
• Reuters with additional editing with Jim Pollard
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