China is denying that it will build a military base in the Solomon Islands after agreeing with the South Pacific nation to a security pact that is raising concerns in the region and beyond.
Last week, the two sides quietly signed a Framework Agreement on bilateral security cooperation, saying it is “conducive to stability and security of the Solomon Islands, and will promote common interests of other countries in the region.” A framework agreement is not the final deal but confirms both countries’ intentions with details to be agreed in the future.
A draft agreement leaked online last week would allow Beijing to set up bases and deploy troops in the Solomon Islands, which lies about 1,700 km (1,050 miles) from the northeastern coast of Australia. The draft agreement and Framework Agreement are separate documents.
It remains unclear how the two documents differ but, in a statement released Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Honiara categorically denied that a military base would be developed in the Solomons.
“This is utterly misinformation deliberately spread with [a] political motive,” an embassy spokesperson said in the statement, responding to a question about whether China would build a military base in the islands.
China-Solomon Islands security cooperation is “no different from the cooperation of Solomon Islands with other countries,” the spokesperson added.
In recent years, China has been developing closer ties with the Pacific islands, wooing them with infrastructure loans and economic assistance, as well as military exchanges.
The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 – a move to please Beijing which seeks to diminish the international diplomatic recognition of the government in Taiwan.
Concerns over pact
The draft agreement, meanwhile, has provoked fears in the South Pacific region’s traditional powers, Australia and New Zealand. Last week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that Wellington sees the pact as “gravely concerning.”
The U.S., which has been promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, also expressed concerns about China’s moves in the Solomons.
Adm. Samuel J. Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying earlier this week that he was “undoubtedly concerned” about the China-Solomon Islands security pact.
“There is still a path ahead. But anytime that a secret security arrangement makes its way into the light of day, it is a concern,” Paparo told the Australian network in Washington.
The U.S. admiral also warned that “there’s the potential of conflict within our region within a couple of years because of the incredible unpredictability of events.”
The security agreement with China “will allow the Solomon Islands government to invite China to send police and even military personnel to protect Chinese community and businesses in Solomon Islands during riots and social unrests,” said a researcher specializing in the Pacific region at the Australian National University (ANU), who requested anonymity because of personal concerns.
“This is different from China establishing a military base in Solomon Islands but may pave the way for China to do so,” he told RFA.
‘Diversification’ of partnerships
Beijing doesn’t hide its ambition to set up military bases in the South Pacific. In 2018, media reports about China’s plan to build a base in Vanuatu prompted a stern warning from then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
A possible presence of Chinese law enforcement personnel so close to the homeland has rattled decision makers in Canberra. Australia is the biggest aid donor to the Solomon Islands and, in 2017, it signed a bilateral security treaty with Honiara, its first with a Pacific nation.
“From traditional powers’ perspective, they think such security agreement is not necessary because existing regional mechanisms can meet the demands of Pacific islands like the Solomon Islands,” the ANU researcher said.
“But the incumbent Solomon Islands government said they need to diversify the country’s external security partnerships, especially with China, which lends strong support to the government during and after the riot in November 2021,” he said.
Rioting broke out in Honiara, the nation’s capital, in late November over the government’s decision to diplomatically recognize China over Taiwan.
Last week, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told lawmakers that to achieve the nation’s security needs, “it is clear that we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other countries” but existing security arrangements with Australia would remain.
His policy of “diversification” was evident in November when the PM asked Australia – and after that China – to send police forces to help him quell the riots that rocked Honiara.
The Chinese Embassy, for its part, warned against what it called “Cold War and colonial mentality,” saying the Pacific island nations are “all sovereign and independent.”
“The region should not be considered a ‘backyard’ of other countries,” it said in its statement issued on Tuesday.