Geopolitical rivalry in the Pacific between China, the US and its Western allies has heated up again, with another political flare-up in the Solomon Islands, which has been wooed aggressively by Beijing.
Opposition MPs are calling for an inquiry into a disputed weapons shipment from China in March last year.
Their call follows photos of crates of guns given by the Chinese government to police in the Solomon Islands. The latter say the guns were just replica or imitation firearms intended for training.
However, US diplomatic cables from the time, which have recently been revealed by the ABC network in Australia, show that American diplomats believe the weapons were real.
The weapons shipment came after a surge of heightened ethnic and political tension in the Solomons and riots in the Chinatown area of Honiara, the nation’s capital, after allegations of corruption over logging permits, inter-island rivalry and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s push for closer ties with China.
Mostyn Mango, head of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), said at the time some 95 replica rifles and 92 replica pistols were shipped to the country, but they were “not capable of firing any live munitions” and did not “in any way threaten the security of this country”.
However, US diplomats said the firearms appeared to be real and that authorities on the Solomons were attempting “to recategorize an illicit arms shipment as an authorised shipment of ‘replica’ firearms”, according to a cable written by the US embassy in Papua New Guinea.
Opposition MPs in the Solomons and some civil society activists were deeply sceptical of that claim, and rumours around the shipment have continued to swirl over the last 18 months, according to ABC News.
Al Jazeera reported last Friday that US diplomats in Port Moresby sent cables to Washington saying the weapons seemed to be genuine, citing a source who said the “weapons appeared real in every way, including in weight and mechanics”.
The island police force held a demonstration to show off the “replica” weapons more than a week after the queries first arose, but the US cable said the guns in the crate were “not the same” as the ones displayed for the public.
Prominent Opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr told the ABC the allegation of weapons smuggling brought back memories of the violence and upheaval that traumatised the Solomons before the RAMSI intervention in 2003, when militants took control of police armouries and seized semi-automatic weapons.
“For us, allegations of real weapons coming in, these are issues which touch the heart of the security of our nation,” he was quoted as saying. Kenilorea wants a broader inquiry.
This is not the first time the Opposition has spoken about guns donated by foreign nations keen to win favour with leaders of the strategically placed island nation.
MPs voiced concern last year about “militarization” of the country after the Australian Federal Police donated 60 MK18 rifles and 13 police vehicles to the RSIPF.
- Jim Pollard