Australia, New Zealand worried about China deal with Solomon Islands

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CANBERRA, Australa (AP) – Australian and New Zealand prime ministers on Monday raised concerns about the possibility of a Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands.

A document leaked last week suggests China could increase its military presence in the South Pacific island nation, including through ship visits.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he held talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over the weekend and planned to speak to his counterparts in Papua New Guinea and Fiji later on Monday.

“The reports we’ve seen come as no surprise to us and remind us of the constant pressures and threats that exist in our region to our own national security,” Morrison told reporters.

“This is a worrying issue for the region, but it comes as no surprise. We have long been aware of this pressure,” he added.

Ardern described the possibility of Chinese forces being stationed in the Solomon Islands as “serious concern”.

“We see such acts as a potential militarization of the region,” she told Radio NZ. “We see very little reason for such a need and presence in terms of Pacific security,” she added.

Ardern urged Solomon Islands leaders “not to look beyond our own Pacific family” when it comes to the country’s security ties.

Solomon Islands announced on Thursday that it had signed a police cooperation agreement with China. Of more concern to Solomon Islands’ neighbors, however, was the draft text of a broader security agreement that was leaked online.

Under the terms of the draft deal, China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomon Islands “to help maintain social order” and for a variety of other reasons. It could also send ships to the islands for stopovers and to replenish supplies.

The draft agreement requires China to sign off on any information released about joint security arrangements, including at media briefings.

Asked about the deal last week, China’s foreign ministry said Beijing and the Solomon Islands had “carried out normal law enforcement and security cooperation based on equal treatment and win-win cooperation.”

It was not immediately clear when the security agreement could be finalized, signed, or come into effect.

The Solomon Islands, home to about 700,000 people, switched diplomatic affiliation from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, contributing to unrest in November.

Australian police have since been in the capital, Honiara, to keep the peace under a 2017 bilateral security deal. It provides a legal basis for the rapid deployment of Australian police, troops and associated civilians in the event of a major security challenge.

When Australian police and troops left the Solomon Islands in 2017 after 14 years, the two countries signed a bilateral treaty that would allow Australians to return at short notice at the invitation of the Solomon Islands Prime Minister. That treaty was enforced in November, and Australian police were on the air within hours of Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare appealing for help.

Australia had led a force of police and Pacific Island troops as part of the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission from 2003 to 2017. It included 2,300 police officers and troops from 17 nations invited by the Solomon Islands government. The operation successfully ended the conflict in which 200 people lost their lives.

Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale said he warned Australian High Commissioner Lachlan Strahan last August that the government was negotiating a security deal with Beijing that could lead to the establishment of Chinese bases there.

“Personally, I am very disappointed in Australia on this matter,” Wale told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“I think Australia saw this coming and if it didn’t, it should have,” Wale added.

Morrison said Australia is rebalancing its foreign aid to focus on the Pacific.

“We were aware of the risks across the Pacific,” Morrison said, referring to Chinese involvement.

In 2018, Australian Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, then Secretary of State for International Development and the Pacific, said Chinese aid programs in poor Pacific island nations are creating “white elephants” that threaten economic stability without bringing benefits. Beijing protested their criticism.

The Pacific’s traditional aid partners – the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – have stepped up efforts to offer alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure partnerships.

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