Australian general says Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands would force ADF rethink

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One of the ADF’s most senior officers has warned that if China manages to station warships in Solomon Islands it would “change the calculus” for Australia’s military, forcing a change to Defence operations.

Concern is growing that Honiara and Beijing will soon sign a new security pact allowing Chinese personnel and equipment to be stationed in the Pacific nation, which is less than 2,000 kilometres off the Queensland coast.

This week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare defended the draft agreement but declared that there was no plan to allow China to build a naval or military base in his country, saying the suggestion was “misinformation.”

The Defence Force’s Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, said any stationing of People’s Liberation Army-Navy vessels there would affect Australia’s military operations.

“It does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomon Islands,” General Bilton said while visiting the Australian Signals Directorate in Canberra.

“We would change our patrolling patterns and our maritime awareness activities,” he added.

Earlier this year Chinese police officers began supporting members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, just months after Australian Federal Police and ADF personnel were dispatched to Honiara following anti-government riots.

“We find ourselves in a circumstance where we will be present in the Solomon Islands and so too will the Chinese seeking to provide training and support to the same organisation,” General Bilton said.

“It is an unusual circumstance for us to be interfacing with the Chinese in the Solomon Islands and I guess they will, and we will, get an understanding of how they intend to support the (Royal) Solomon Islands Police Force.”

Appearing at a Senate estimates hearing, the Federal Police Commissioner has revealed he personally lobbied his counterpart in Solomon Islands to stick with the Australian training program.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told the committee he made Australia’s view clear to the head of the Royal Solomon Islands force and cited the death of an Australian police officer shot on patrol in 2004.

“We have lost one of our own over there, so we are not going to let other nations come in and try and change that whole framework,” he said.

“It works. The community crime dropped police force are more professional than ever before and we want to maintain that position of being the partner of choice in the region.”.

Meanwhile, the approval of a draft security agreement between Solomon Islands and China would mark a “big change” to Beijing’s foreign policy in the region, says former Chinese diplomat and research fellow Denghua Zhang.

Dr Zhang from the Australian National University said the deal could provide China “a foothold in the region from a military perspective”

“I think that that’s why the traditional powers are getting very sensitive to and also greatly concerned about these potential security agreements between Solomons and China,” Dr Zhang said.

He said last year’s riots in Honiara, where Chinese business owners and residents were targets, was one reason China was seeking to set-up a military base in Solomon Islands.

“If the reported security agreement between Solomon Island’s government and also China is approved, this might mean that in the future, China might directly send its police, or even military personnel to protect and also evacuate its Chinese citizens in the future,” Dr Zhang said.

He also said China was looking to expand its naval defence and grow its power in the Pacific region.

“I think that that’s why the traditional powers are getting very sensitive to and also greatly concerned about these potential security agreements between Solomons and China,” Dr Zhang said.

He said last year’s riots in Honiara, where Chinese business owners and residents were targets, was one reason China was seeking to set-up a military base in Solomon Islands.

“If the reported security agreement between Solomon Island’s government and also China is approved, this might mean that in the future, China might directly send its police, or even military personnel to protect and also evacuate its Chinese citizens in the future,” Dr Zhang said.

He also said China was looking to expand its naval defence and grow its power in the Pacific region.

SOURCE: ABC/PACNEWS