Pacific nations should pressure the Solomon Islands’ government to step away from an impending deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), warning it could result in the region’s militarisation and a ratcheting of tensions, according to a defence expert.
The deal, which surprised officials last week, was revealed after it began circulating online on March 24 and could open the door for Chinese security personnel, including police, soldiers, weaponry, and naval ships, to be stationed in the Pacific nation—based just 1,700 kilometres from the northern Australian city of Cairns.
The Solomons was the site of the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II and fought over tooth and nail because of its influence over the sea lanes in the region.
Michael Shoebridge, defence director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the issue did not just concern the Solomon Islands’ government but was a “problem shared by every country in the South Pacific.”
“This is a fundamental change for the region that will bring direct military tension and conflict right into the South Pacific,” he told The Epoch Times. “A good way of thinking about that would be everything we see happening in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Taiwan Straits—that will be enabled right here in the South Pacific by a growing People’s Liberation Army presence.”
He warned that if the people in the South Pacific region wanted to see the region become an “echo of the South China Sea”—where tensions have escalated after Beijing built and militarised three man-made islands—than “we should all welcome” the Sogavare government’s negotiations.
Otherwise, governments should collectively try to stop Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare from entering the agreement.
Australian and New Zealand leaders have scrambled after revelations of the “Framework Agreement Between the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Government of the Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation” emerged.
New Zealand (NZ) Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has travelled to Fiji to discuss the deal with Pacific leaders. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has spoken with the leaders of Fiji and Papua New Guinea after noting that the agreement did not come as a surprise.
“This is an issue of concern for the region, but it is; it has not come as a surprise. We have been long aware of these pressures. That’s why we had the Pacific step up. That’s why we doubled our effort,” he told reporters on March 28.
Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Sogavare responded to criticism of the deal the next day, telling Parliament that it was “very insulting” to see the backlash.
“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends, and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” he said in comments obtained by Reuters.
He said the Solomons had asked Australia to help build a naval base in the country but was refused because of an existing defence program with neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, has warned that the defiant Sogavare could attempt to solidify his hold on power if he locks in the current partnership with Beijing.
“(Sogavare could say,) ‘We need outside help to come and create stability in the country, and our friends China will come and do it,’” Paskal told The Epoch Times. “And that’s when they arrest the leaders, the Malaitan leaders, and God forbid what happens to them in detention.”
She said Australia and New Zealand should try to reinvigorate the democratic process in the country—via the 2000 Townsville Peace Agreement—to put more pressure on Sogavare.
“Put out the steps that the various provinces, including Malaita, agreed to. There’s a whole series of things that have already been negotiated—everybody signed on, including the government under Sogavare,” she said.
Shoebridge agreed, saying the “first order of business” for a new government, if elected, should be to “unravel the agreement.”
“The actual physical experience of having China act inside the Solomons in the way this agreement sets out … will be so obviously at odds with the Solomon Islands’ own sovereignty and security,” he said. “A democratic Solomon Islands will end this, but for now the current government seems determined to create this problem for itself and the region.”