Beijing Looking to Buy Deep Water Port, WWII Airstrip in Solomon Islands

Beijing Looking to Buy Deep Water Port, WWII Airstrip in Solomon Islands
In this handout provided by the Australian Department of Defence, Armadale Class Patrol Boat, HMAS Armidale, sails into the Port of Honiara, Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands, on Dec. 1, 2021. (CPL Brodie Cross/Australian Department of Defence via Getty Images)
Daniel Y. Teng

A Chinese state-owned firm is investigating the purchase of a deep water port and a World War II-era airstrip in the Solomon Islands, according to new documents obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The China Forestry Group Corp., under the direct control of Beijing, is scoping out sites for acquisition, including a forestry plantation on the circle-shaped island of Kolombangara—the site of extensive fighting between the Allies and Imperial Japan during World War II.

The plantation covers two-thirds of the island and includes 14,000 hectares (almost 34,600 acres) of hardwood forest, 24,000 hectares of protected forest, a deep water port, an airstrip, and large tracts of flat land.

Kolombangara is also part of the New Georgia Islands group, within the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. It’s located near a major tuna fishing hub, Noro, as well as the town of Munda, where there’s already extensive Chinese investment in the airport.

Talks for Kolombangara began in 2019, when a delegation from China Forestry visited the island. However, while the delegation showed little interest in the trees, they appeared to be interested in the wharf and its depth.

The plantation is currently owned by Taiwanese and Australian private shareholders, along with the Solomon Islands government—which currently maintains close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Since May, talks have resumed.

Members of the plantation company’s board, Kolombangara Forests Products, have written to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressing concerns over Beijing’s interest, according to the ABC’s Four Corners program. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded by saying that it wouldn’t intervene in this particular transaction.
The Australian government already has investments across the Solomon Islands in its bid to push back on Beijing’s ongoing influence, including works at the Noro fishing and container hub and funding six mobile phone towers across the country.

Beijing Influence Deeply Entrenched in Solomons

It comes as Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei continues working with the Solomon Islands national government to build 200 mobile towers across the islands. Huawei was banned from Australia’s 5G network in 2018 over security concerns—a move adopted by several democratic governments in subsequent years, including the United States, Japan, the UK, India, and Taiwan.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare also was found to have activated a secret Beijing-backed slush fund in the leadup to a no-confidence motion in December—distributing $80,000 to every Parliament member loyal to him (and nothing to those who opposed him).

The latest revelations come as democratic leaders continue bolstering support in the Pacific region in response to Beijing’s ongoing influence—which has entrenched the interests of corrupt national leaders.

The plantation deal isn’t the first indication of Beijing’s military interests in the region. In April, documents were leaked revealing that Chinese state-owned aviation company Avic International Project Engineering Co. had been scoping out development sites for naval and infrastructure projects for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

The news broke after a secret security deal between Sogavare and Beijing was signed that would allow the PLAN to station troops, weapons, and naval ships in the region—opening the door to the full militarization of the region akin to the South China Sea.

Sogavare has continued to deny that the regime in Beijing will establish a military base.