NZ Defence Minister ‘caught off guard’ by Solomon Islands-China security agreement


Defence Minister Peeni Henare says he was caught “off guard” by revelations Solomon Islands and China were forging a security agreement, as neither New Zealand nor Australian intelligence anticipated the move.

Henare met Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton while in Australia on Friday, as reports emerged the tiny Pacific nation was preparing to sign a security agreement with China that would, among other provisions, allow the superpower’s military access to replenish ships, protect Chinese personnel and projects.

“We were both surprised, because the intelligence we were getting didn’t exactly match that,” Henare said, in an interview on Monday.

“We knew that there were some challenges there, with respect to China, but the leaked draft agreement … it did catch me as a surprise, and even Minister Dutton.”

The prospect of a military base being constructed in the Pacific has been of particular concern to New Zealand and Australia in recent years, and details of a draft copy of the deal – later confirmed by the Solomon Islands Government – alarmed the governments of both countries last week.

Despite Henare’s apparent surprise, Australia Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on Monday told ABC Australia intelligence agencies were “all over” the prospective deal in Solomon Islands.

Henare said there were mentions in intelligence briefings about increased Chinese influence, but he never envisaged a formal arrangement between governments.

“That was the thing that I think caught quite a large number of people off guard.”

Australia wanted to “show strong signals” to the wider Pacific, as well as the rest of the world, that Solomon Islands and the Pacific was “definitely in our collective backyard”, he said.

Dutton appeared to want to expand the deployment of Australian troops and police to Solomon Islands, Henare said, and the Government would be reassessing its contribution.

Five New Zealand soldiers and four police officers have remained in the country since the Government deployed them to the country to help maintain order, after violent riots broke out in December. The riots were sparked by both economic concerns, and frustration at the country’s growing relationship with China.

Australia on Thursday announced it would maintain its assistance force in Solomon Islands until December 2023. Henare said New Zealand staff would remain until June and possibly beyond.

“We’ve made it clear that we would stay in-step with our Australian friends on that one.”

Henare said he discussed with Dutton their respective defence spending.

“He certainly didn’t talk about any figures or any particular compatibilities … other than the obvious outcome is: if they’re purchasing, and we’re not, what does that mean in terms of how far we might be apart?”

Australia has substantially increased defence spending, with Dutton announcing on Thursday that $875 million (US$656 million) would be pumped into military bases across the country.

The Government has signalled a different direction ahead of the Budget in May, with Henare suggesting previously planned acquisitions of military hardware would be delayed to instead focus on improving the defence estate and “regenerating” a Defence Force withered by the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence deferred the acquisition of a Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel due to the “impact Covid-19 has had on the fiscal environment”.

Henare said he still supported defence spending, but he had to work within budget restraints.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, on Monday afternoon, said she had raised directly the issue of Chinese police officers in the Solomon Islands with its prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, in December.

“We are in the Solomons currently – we have been for a number of years. In my mind there is no need for this expansion that we’ve seen.

“What gaps remained that were being fulfilled? I can’t see any, and so that then raises a question over what the intention is with these arrangements.”

Former foreign minister Winston Peters, who was deputy prime minister in a Labour-coalition government led by Ardern last term, said “no-one should have been surprised by this”.

Plans to remedy decades of underinvestment in the Pacific, through a programme dubbed the Pacific Reset, were “slammed” by the Opposition as a waste of money, he said.

“That is narrowness, and that myopic behaviour has a consequence, and now we’re seeing it.”

National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said the prospective security arrangement was “not surprising”, considering Chinese police were also brought in to assist after the recent rioting.

The leadership had clearly calculated China was going to be significant player not only in the Pacific, but internationally, and as a very large economy, “they’ve got more to offer”, he said.