The Solomon Islands has awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in its capital, despite concerns that Beijing is eyeing a naval base in the region.
“This will see the rehabilitation of the old Honiara international port and construction of the Honiara domestic port and two provincial ports,” the Solomon Islands government said in a statement.
The port reconstruction deal is part of a $170-million project funded by the Asian Development Bank to upgrade roads and wharves in the capital.
China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) was awarded the contract after being the sole bidder in a competitive tender, said Mike Qaqara, an official at the Solomons’ infrastructure development ministry.
CCECC was also awarded the project’s roads component in 2022.
The development comes at a time when the United States and its allies, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, have voiced fears that China has ambitions to build a naval base in the region.
Concerns have heightened since the Solomon Islands struck a security pact with Beijing last year.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, who was among 10 Pacific island leaders who declined to sign a regional security and trade pact with China in June, told reporters in Australia “this is a commercial port, although I think the fears are it might morph into something else… dual purpose”.
Modern ports are essential for Solomon Islands economic development but they could become “dual purpose” facilities which could give China’s navy access to the region, said Peter Connolly, who is researching China’s Pacific infrastructure projects at the Australian National University (ANU).
“It is not about bases, it is about access,” Connolly, a former military officer, said, referring to the security pact between Honiara and Beijing.
Writing in the Australian Foreign Affairs this month, Connolly noted that ADB infrastructure contracts in the Pacific islands had been dominated by Chinese state companies who offered the lowest bids.
The ADB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Competing for influence
Downplaying the concerns among western governments, Qaqara said there would be “no expansion” of the project. The Solomon Islands and China have consistently denied that their security pact would allow a naval base.
“The Australian Government closely monitors developments which might impact on our national interest. The Solomon Islands Infrastructure Development Ministry has said that there will be no expansion of the port for dual use,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Wednesday evening.
Delegations from China and the United States are visiting Honiara this week and are competing for influence in the strategically-located Pacific islands nation.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met the vice chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, Tang Wenghong, and signed on to Beijing’s Global Development Initiative, his office said in a statement.
The Chinese agency has funded infrastructure projects since Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, and development co-operation would be strengthened, the office added.
Sogavare also held a “strategic dialogue” with Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the United States National Security Council, who “reiterated our support for a free, open, secure, and prosperous Solomon Islands”, the US embassy in Honiara said in a statement.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena