South Pacific: Is China Establishing a Military Base in Solomon Islands?

By Ravindra Singh Prasad

SUVA, Fiji (IDN) — Solomon Islands Prime Minister Mannasseh Sogavara has brushed aside concerns raised in Australia and New Zealand that a new China-Solomon Island security treaty will diminish the role of its traditional security partners in the region.

After a draft copy of the security agreement was leaked last week, there have been concerns raised in the region that China may be heading towards establishing a military base in the South Pacific. Meanwhile the Solomon Island government has started investigations into finding out who leaked classified documents.

Australia’s hawkish defense minister Peter Dutton told Channel 9 network there on March 25 that Australia “would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government”.

He added “we want peace and stability in the region. We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out in the region.”

In November after anti-China riots erupted in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, Australia deployed forces to the Solomon Islands after Sogavare’s government requested assistance under a treaty agreement to bring the riots under control. Dutton said 50 police were in the country and would remain there until 2023.

Sogavare said the Australian media had focused on Solomon Islands being pressured by China to build a military base there, which is only 2000km away from the northern coast of Australia.

“Where does the nonsense come from?” he asked in response to a question in parliament on March 29. Sogavare said the security treaty was pursued at the request of Solomon Islands and “we are not pressured in any way by our new friends” adding that “there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in Solomon Islands”.

In a statement to parliament on March 29, Sogavare said that Solomon Islands finds it “insulting to be branded as unfit to manage its sovereign affairs: and he has labelled those who leaked the documents “lunatics and agents of foreign regimes” with “no regard for secrecy”. The PM did not mention any names of foreign regimes.

In an interview with a New Zealand radio program on the weekend, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has blamed the government of Scott Morrison for neglecting the Pacific for so long and cutting its aid budget to the region to open the door for China’s incursions.

Fourteen officers of the Royal Solomon Island Police Force (RSIPF) have completed the first public order management (POM) training conducted by Chinese instructors last week.

During the two weeks course, the Police Response Team (PRT) and Operational Safety Training (OST) officers were trained in unarmed combat skills, advanced use of long sticks, round shields, tactical batons, T-shaped batons, handcuffs, basic rifle tactics and crowd control. They were trained by the Chinese Police Liaison Team (CPLT) based at Rove Police Headquarters in the Solomon Islands.

All the training was “relevant and practical” aimed at increasing the capability of RSIPF officers to respond to different kinds of emergencies, a police statement said amid controversy over the leak of a security pact between China and Solomon Islands. A second POM training course will be conducted for Central Response Unit (CRU) and Provincial Response Unit (PRU) officers from May 2-15.

“What is also being leaked apparently just now, however is a draft broader agreement which takes this level of police cooperation between the Solomon Islands Police Force and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to a broader military agreement between the Solomons and China,” Rudd said in the radio interview.

“(This) would contain within it the possibility of Chinese naval visits, for the Chinese to engage in wider forms of military cooperating with the government of the Solomon Islands. From my own perspective this would represent a highly retrograde step in terms of peace and security and stability in the Southwest Pacific,” the former Labor Prime Minister added.

Solomon Star reported March 30 that Sogavare has also told parliament that he needs to protect infrastructure being built in the country by a foreign country and that it cannot be done by another country. He was referring to the multi-million-dollar project to build facilities in Honiara for 2023 Pacific Games, that were attacked and some part of it set on fire by rioters.

In October 2020, China and Solomon Islands governments signed an agreement to build the venues for Games that include a new $53 million 10,000-capacity National Stadium, with 1,000 VIP seats, and six other facilities. A six-court tennis facility is expected to be another landmark project. Along with other infrastructure projects, these investments are expected to inject nearly $8 billion in new investments into the Solomon Islands economy leading up to the Games.

According to Solomon Star, Sogavare has told parliament “we witness Chinatown burnt to ashes and attempted vandalism and destruction to the Pacific Games infrastructures,” and it was the “brave workers” that protected the constructions.

“If any country does not have the political appetite, to do that we must have an alternative arrangement in place,” he is quoted to have told parliament, perhaps referring to the Australian security forces in the country.

Sogavare has said that does not mean they are insensitive to the “unfortunate perceptions held by many leaders” that the region security is threatened by the presence of China in the region. He has described this as “outer nonsense” and told parliament “we know our boundaries” and he has explained that to the Pacific Island Forum members PNG Prime Minister James Marape, and Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama the Chair of the Forum.

Solomon Times journalist Samson Sade says that if the Solomon’s people attacked the infrastructure built by China, the PM should be asking why the public target such infrastructure. “This is perhaps the First time in our history that a bilateral partner would have to guard its ‘gifts’ to the country, in this case infrastructure facilities for the Pacific Games,” he notes.

“It seems clear that despite any assurances he may want to give, it is clear to our friends in the region who have stood with us for a very long time that there is no longer a preferred security partner, but a collection of partners.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 April 2022]

Image: Screenshot YouTube | German public broadcast service (DW) News

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