A wide-ranging draft security pact between the Solomon Islands and China has been leaked online, prompting Australia to voice concern about actions that would “destabilise” the South Pacific.
The proposals — which have not yet been adopted — would allow Chinese security and naval deployments to the crisis-hit Pacific island nation.
The United States and Australia have long been concerned about the potential for China to build a naval base in the South Pacific, allowing its navy to project power far beyond its borders.
The draft “framework agreement” has sent shock waves through Canberra, which has long been the dominant power in Melanesia and sees the region as its backyard.
“We would be concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“Members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security.”
Appearing on the Nine Network’s Today program on Friday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it would be concerning if China established a military base in the Solomon Islands.
“We would be concerned clearly about any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government,” he told Today on Friday morning.
“I’m meeting with my New Zealand counterpart [Peeni Henare] this afternoon.
“It’s a standing agenda item for all of us to be realistic about China’s footprint, their exertion, their pressure and the way in which they conduct their business,” he said.
Asked if the Morrison government had “dropped the ball” in the Pacific, Dutton said: “Not at all. If you look at … the amount of support that we have provided into the Pacific, the work we’ve done in Tonga, the work we continue to do in PNG and every other nation.
“We have a fantastic relationship with the Solomon Islands and we’re there at the request of the government of the Solomon Islands at the moment.”
Anna Powles, a security expert at the Massey University of New Zealand, told AFP the draft agreement was “broad in scope” and contained “several ambiguous and potentially geopolitically ambitious provisions”.
It would allow armed Chinese police and the military to deploy at the Solomon Islands’ request, to maintain “social order”.
The “forces of China” would also be allowed to protect “the safety of Chinese personnel” and “major projects in the Solomon Islands”.
Without the written consent of the other party, neither would be allowed to disclose the missions publicly.
Crucially, Powles said, the draft agreement also showed “China is seeking logistical supply capabilities and material assets located in the Solomon Islands to support ship visits”.
The deal would in some respects echo a similar agreement the Solomon Islands already has with Australia.
The nation of 800,000 has been wrecked by political and social unrest, and many of its people live in poverty.
In November, protesters tried to storm the parliament and then went on a deadly three-day rampage, torching much of Honiara’s Chinatown.
More than 200 peacekeepers from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were deployed to restore calm, and veteran Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare avoided being deposed.
Leaders on the most populous island of Malaita fiercely oppose Mr Sogavare’s decision to recognise Beijing and break ties with Taiwan in 2019.
“The agreement will likely be viewed in Malaita with suspicion and deep concern in the current climate of unease,” Powles said.
Following the 2021 riots the United States announced it was reopening its embassy in Honiara, which had been closed in 1993.
China has since deployed police to train local forces and donated riot equipment. Late on Thursday the Solomon Islands announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding on police cooperation with Beijing.
Earlier this week Australia’s high commissioner in the country Lachie Strahan met Sogavare and agreed to extend the “Solomons International Assistance Force” — deployed for last year’s riots — until December 2023.
Australia previously led a peacekeeping mission in the Solomons from 2003 to 2017.
They also agreed Australia would build a handful of infrastructure projects and provide much-needed budget assistance.