A surreal controversy has erupted in Solomon Islands after the Chinese Embassy allegedly shipped several crates holding replica firearms into the capital Honiara, just months after the city was shaken by violent riots.
Last week, local media in Solomon Islands reported that a large shipment of weapons had been secretly brought into Honiara in February on a logging vessel.
The prospect of more firearms flooding into the country stoked widespread unease on social media because Solomon Islands has been riven by resurgent political and ethnic tensions in recent months.
Australia sent troops into Honiara in November last year to help restore order after anti-government protests morphed quickly into widespread looting and rioting.
However, the Customs and Excise Department’s comptroller of customs in Honiara, Jim Sutton, told the ABC that the crates only held replica guns for police training, and there were no real weapons inside.
“There was a consignment of training aids for the police, things like batons and bullet proof vests [and] there were some replica arms in that shipment,” he said.
“They are not capable of being fired and they have since been released.”
His comments seem to indicate that the crates were part of a broader Chinese government police assistance package for Solomon Islands which included a gift of helmets, batons, shields and other “non-lethal” anti-riot equipment.
Around nine Chinese police officers have provided training to local police under the programme.
However, leading Solomon Islands opposition figures are still pressing the government to reveal more information about exactly what was shipped in the crates.
Opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr said he had heard “claims” that the weapons were “simply fake arms to assist PRC (People’s Republic of China) advisers in their training of Solomon Islands police”.
But, he said, the government’s secretive approach had stirred public anxiety, and it was time for Solomon Islands officials and the Chinese Embassy in Honiara to provide more information about the shipment.
“A press conference organised by Solomon Islands authorities and the PRC Embassy presenting these fake arms to the public will go a long way to easing tensions around this matter for an increasingly anxious public,” he told the ABC.
While the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force said it was investigating the matter, it did not confirm whether the guns were fake or if they were part of a police training programme.
“The Royal Solomon Island Police Force (RSIPF) is still investigating this report of alleged gun-shipment … therefore, it is too early for RSIPF to make any statements at this time,” a police statement said.
This latest controversy comes at a delicate moment for Solomon Islands, as its politicians are still grappling with fallout from the 2021 riots.
Last week, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare — who has accused his political opponents of orchestrating last year’s violence — warned that there could soon be a resurgence of unrest.
“There are rumours circulating within our society of a possible repeat of the unlawful action that happened last November,” he said.
The episode is also being closely observed in Canberra, where officials remain uneasy about nascent security cooperation between Solomon Islands and China.
While Australia has not publicly criticised the Chinese police training programme, senior security sources told the ABC last year that the programme might be expanded into a future military presence in Solomon Islands.
The permanent secretary of Solomon Islands’ Foreign Affairs Ministry, Collin Beck, took a thinly veiled swipe at Australia at a recent press conference while defending the Chinese police programme.
“No one has monopoly on knowledge. We should not go into an ideological discussion about it. It’s unfortunate that anyone starts to make judgements because they come from one particular country,” Beck told journalists.
“It’s unfortunate some of our close friends have opinions on that. All we can do is just note it.”
Anna Powles from Massey University in New Zealand — who is an expert on the Pacific and security issues — said the controversy over the shipment also appeared to expose vulnerabilities in Solomon Islands’ border arrangements.
“It begs the question of why the need for secrecy, and what else was brought in with the consignment?”
She also said that bringing in large quantities of even fake weapons was “potentially a very serious blunder by Chinese diplomats in Honiara” in the current political climate.
“The optics of weapons arriving under a veil of secrecy only months after serious riots and amidst a climate of insecurity shows very poor judgement,” Dr Powles said.
The Chinese Embassy in Honiara did not respond directly to questions about the shipment.
But a representative in the embassy pointed the ABC to previous statements it has made defending the police cooperation programme.
In one of the statements, China’s Ambassador to Solomon Islands Li Ming said that many criticisms of the initiative were “Sinophobic” and the police cooperation was “open and transparent, guided strictly by principles of sovereignty and non-interference”.
He also denied that the program would escalate political tensions in Solomon Islands or disrupt existing police cooperation programs.
“It is up to the Solomon Islands government to decide how to utilise the assistance. Police cooperation between Solomon Islands and China does not conflict with other countries,” he said.
“It adds to collaboration with other countries and is not a zero-sum game,” he said.