NZ defence secretary raises Solomon Islands concerns with Chinese general


At a January meeting between a Chinese general and New Zealand’s defence secretary, there was one Pacific issue that New Zealand wanted to speak about in detail – the Solomon Islands.

The possibility of China building a military base in the Pacific has become a major concern for New Zealand officials and, after details emerged of a prospective security deal between the Solomon Islands and China more than a week ago, the Government has been engaged in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to dissuade the Solomon Islands from signing.

The formal security deal, described as “gravely concerning” by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, appeared to take the Government by surprise. But the increasing security ties between China and the Solomon Islands have been of concern for months.

Details of a 19 January virtual meeting between General Li Zuocheng and Defence Secretary Andrew Bridgman – the head of the defence ministry – reveal New Zealand directly raised its concerns about China’s offer of security assistance to the Solomon Islands Government.

A heavily-redacted account of the meeting, obtained under the Official Information Act, shows the pair discussed military ties between New Zealand and China, issues in the Pacific, and concerns New Zealand holds about strategic competition.

The defence ministry’s version of the discussion was significantly different from that published by the Chinese government shortly after the meeting occurred.

The video call took place almost two months after New Zealand sent more than 60 soldiers and police officers to the Solomon Islands capital Honiara to assist with quelling riots.

Rioters, who looted and burnt Honiara’s Chinatown, had called for the country’s prime minister to step down due to frustration over economic issues, and the economic implications of the country’s increasingly strong ties with China.

The briefing paper about January meeting includes a section on “Pacific Security Issues (including Solomon Islands)”.

Bridgman “spoke in detail” on the Solomon Islands situation, including China’s offer of security assistance.

“He highlighted the important role that New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific Islands Forum nations have played in helping restore calm, and the long-standing approach of Pacific Islands Forum members in supporting each other’s security needs,” the paper says.

The remainder of this section, beyond brief mention of the recent volcanic explosion in Tonga, was redacted. A section on “Asia Pacific and Strategic Competition” was also mostly redacted.

“Secretary Bridgman [redacted] … reiterated New Zealand’s concerns about strategic competition, [redacted] … He noted that [redacted] … the US was one of New Zealand’s closest security partners, and Australia our only military ally.”

Bridgman also spoke of the “firmly held” views contained in the Ministry of Defence’s recently published “Defence Assessment” – a report which warned of an increasingly assertive China and of fears that a military base could be constructed in the Pacific.

Victoria University professor David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, said such high-level military meetings were part of a broader diplomatic pattern between the two countries.

“It’s generally seen as useful to maintain channels of communication, that it’s a way of making sure that you’re talking clearly and getting across what your priorities, and concerns, and interests might be.”

The New Zealand-China military relationship had existed since the mid-90s, he said, but more recently “divergences in the relationship become much more to the fore”.

“There’s so much redacted it’s hard to know, but it would’ve been an opportunity for New Zealand to communicate some of the messaging that’s in the Defence Assessment, around a sense that Pacific security was something handled best by Pacific states, [and] New Zealand opposing the militarisation of the Pacific.

“From a Chinese point of view, it’s also useful for China to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, this is the kind of relationship we have with a small Western Power, this is the kind of good relationship we have’. And it perhaps provides opportunities to contrast it with the relationship other Western countries have with China.

“There’s quite an upbeat interpretation of the call on Chinese media that plays down the differences and talks up the good news side of the relationship.”

According to Beijing’s version of the phone call, the pair had a “frank and in-depth exchange of views on regional security situation, bilateral state and military relations, as well as other issues of common concern”.

Li, a chief of the joint staff of China’s Central Military Commission, reportedly said he wanted New Zealand and China’s militaries to “push forward their ties” and “make contributions to protecting regional peace and prosperity”.

Bridgman was reported as saying: “New Zealand attaches importance to developing military ties with China, and is willing to … strengthen pragmatic co-operation and enhance communication and coordination in international and regional affairs.”.