China donated a cache of replica assault rifles to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in March as part of a training program run by Chinese police. Photo: RSIPF
The Solomon Islands has signed a security pact with China, in a move that is set to exacerbate concerns among U.S., Australian, and New Zealand officials about Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin confirmed the deal on Tuesday night, saying that China would cooperate with the Solomons’ government in Honiara on maintaining social order, protecting people’s safety, combating natural disasters and helping safeguard national security.
Western allies, meanwhile, have raised fears that the deal could open the door to a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific—a move that would see Beijing establishing a military presence less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia’s shores. The Solomon Islands government has previously rubbished such claims as “misinformation promoted by antigovernment commentators.”
“If PRC [the People’s Republic of China] is to set up its military base in the Pacific, it would have done so with either Papua New Guinea or Fiji, the first Pacific Countries to have bilateral relationship with PRC,” the government said in a statement. “[Our] government is conscious of the security ramification of hosting a military base, and it will not be careless to allow such initiative to take place under its watch.”
The U.S. remains unconvinced. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that “despite the Solomon Islands’ comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment” of Chinese military forces to the islands.
“We believe that signing such an agreement could increase destabilisation within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region,” he added.
While the Solomons has yet to publicly confirm if it has finalised the agreement, having initialled it with Chinese officials a fortnight ago, the country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremiah Manele reportedly confirmed the signing of the pact in a text message to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The Solomons has seen a gradual warming of ties with Beijing over the past few years, as the nation’s relationship with its once-close ally Australia has been eroded by climate inaction, cuts to foreign aid, and one-sided geopolitics. In 2019, the Solomons severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, shifting its allegiance to China. That shift underpinned violent anti-government protests in late-2021, prompting Australia to deploy police and army personnel to Honiara, under a 2017 bilateral security treaty.
Confirmation of the security deal with China this week came just days after Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja visited Honiara to ask Sogavare not to sign, and days before the U.S. Indo-Pacific chief Kurt Campbell was set to fly in for the same reason. Both trips represented a renewed eagerness among Western allies to cultivate diplomatic relations with the Solomons, as they compete against China for influence in the Pacific Islands.
It was only in February of this year that the U.S. government announced it would reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands after 29 years—a move that was itself treated with scepticism by Chinese government officials.
“The U.S. Secretary of State last visited Fiji 37 years ago,” said Wang on Tuesday. “After many years, is the sudden visit of a senior U.S. official to a Pacific island country with great pomp and circumstance a concern for the islands or is there another agenda?”
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council on Tuesday said the signing “follows a pattern of China offering shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation in fishing, resource management, development assistance and now security practices,” according to Reuters, without clarifying what “deals” he was referring to.
Wang stressed that the “China-Solomon Islands security cooperation is public, transparent, open and inclusive.” The purpose of the China-Solomon pact, he said, is “to promote social stability and long-term peace and security in Solomon Islands.”
Amid all the power jostling and sabre rattling, Sogavare has sought to make clear that the deal “has no devious intention, nor is a secret plan but a broadened security arrangement that provides the avenue for us to seek support from not only one country.”
“We are friends to all and enemies to none, [and] in this spirit we welcome any country that is willing to support us in our security space,” he said in a statement on April 1. “By diversifying our security space we do not give responsibility to one particular country to bear the burden of our security needs.”
Australia has expressed similar concerns to those of the U.S., with Foreign Minister Marise Payne saying that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government was “disappointed” by the security pact.
“[It] has not been agreed in an open and transparent way, not been consulted, for example, across the region,” Payne said.
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong was more vitriolic, directing criticism at Australia’s Coalition government itself for the way in which it allegedly mishandled the situation.
“This is the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II,” Senator Wong said. “We have China now with a security agreement with a nation of the Pacific, a nation that’s just over 1,600 kilometres from Cairns [in Australia’s far north].
“What this means is, on Scott Morrison’s watch, our region has become less secure, and the risks Australia faces have become much greater.”
Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.