Chinese Foreign Minister and state councillor Wang Yi is likely to make a surprise visit to Solomon Islands in coming weeks, in another sign Beijing is intent on cementing security and commercial ties with the Pacific island nation while Canberra is consumed by the federal election.
A senior Solomon Islands government source told the ABC that preparations had begun for Wang to visit the capital Honiara.
The visit is not expected to happen this week but is likely to occur later in May, potentially before the federal election next weekend.
Australian officials and ministers are monitoring the planned visit very closely.
One federal government source told the ABC they believed it was likely Wang would travel to Honiara as part of a broader visit to a number of Pacific island countries, but added that some of the plans may still be in flux.
Still, the prospect of Wang making a high-level visit to Honiara ahead of the election on 21 May has stirred anxiety in the Coalition, with fears the visit could once again catapult the China-Solomon Islands security pact back into the headlines, and allow Labor to attack its national security credentials just before the election.
One government source told the ABC Wang would lead a large Chinese delegation and the two countries would likely sign a host of new agreements during the trip.
It is also possible the minister will formally sign the deeply contentious security pact that has already been agreed to by both Solomon Islands and China.
The news of his visit comes in the wake of a regional meeting on the China-Solomon Islands agreement, which was held at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji’s capital Suva on Tuesday.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele and Police Minister Veke briefed several senior officials and a small number of politicians from Pacific Island countries about the agreement in an effort to calm regional anxieties about its implications.
The ABC has been told that a number of Pacific Island countries raised concerns about the security agreement, and that many indicated it should be discussed by Pacific leaders when they meet at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva next month.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News the mooted trip did not “come as a surprise to anyone” and suggested it was part of a pattern of aggressive behaviour by China.
“It’s obviously provocative, particularly during the course of an election campaign, that China has made that decision,” he said.
“And I think we, again, need to be eyes wide open about what is happening [with China] in our region, and not just in our region.”
Graeme Smith from the Australian National University said if the trip went ahead then China might use it to announce fresh investments in mining or tuna processing in Solomon Islands.
“With a delegation of this nature, especially at a time of heightened geopolitical rhetoric, the interesting question is what gifts are going to be on offer, other than grant aid related to the South Pacific Games,” he said.
He also said the visit might also provoke protests in Solomon Islands, with unpredictable results.
The China security pact has been fiercely criticised by the Solomon Islands’ opposition and civil society groups, and protesters – including many from the pro-Taiwan province of Malaita –flooded Honiara in November last year.
“The pot is being stirred on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] side, but a fascinating hypothetical is: what if protests greet Wang Yi’s visit?” Smith said.
“What if the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force can’t guarantee his security? Who steps up?”
The Chinese embassy in Canberra has been contacted for comment.