A new security partnership in the South Pacific is upsetting Australians and sparking concern about China’s ambitions in the region.
The Solomon Islands, a nation made up of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific, announced on Friday it is looking to “broaden” its security cooperation with “more partners,” most notably with China. In doing so, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is entering his country into a partnership that will strain relations with Australia, the first country the Solomon Islands ever entered into a security agreement with back in 2017.
“The Government recognize the state’s responsibility of protecting its people from fear and to live in dignity,” an announcement from Sogavare’s office read. “Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.”
Besides shoring up “security threats,” the new agreement addresses “development frameworks” that will spur Chinese investment, expand trade between the islands and China, and result in more students going to China for school.
While Sogavare’s office touts the soft developments that will result from the expanded partnership, Australia and New Zealand, two of the countries in the Five Eyes alliance, were rattled by some of the “hard” security provisions of the new deal.
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Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand have all provided security personnel in the Solomon Islands as a police force that helped quell national riots last year. But the new agreement would also give China an opportunity to supply its own muscle if Sogavare requested it. In addition to police, China can also build a military base.
“This is deeply problematic for the United States and a real cause of concern for our allies and partners,” Charles Edel, the inaugural Australia chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Friday. “The establishment of a base in the Solomon Islands by a strategic adversary would significantly degrade Australia and New Zealand’s security, increase the chances of local corruption and heighten the chances of resource exploitation.”
Australian officials were careful not to try and claim the Solomon Islands didn’t have the right to enter into its own agreements, but they made clear they had concerns about the deal.
“Australia is aware of the proposed draft Security Cooperation agreement between China and Solomon Islands,” Australia’s Foreign Ministry said. “We respect the right of every Pacific country to make sovereign decisions. We have regularly and respectfully raised our concerns with the Solomon Islands Government and will continue to do so. We would be particularly concerned by any actions that undermine the stability and security of our region, including the establishment of a permanent presence such as a military base.”
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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wasn’t blindsided by the deal, and Peter Dutton, Australia’s defense minister, told Nine Network the government hasn’t “dropped the ball” in the region, saying the country has a “fantastic relationship” with the Solomon Islands.
Australians are skeptical. Users on Twitter have been criticizing the government for underestimating the Solomon Islands and treating it as an unimportant partner, referring to the nation as its “backyard.”
Sogavare has been moving his country closer to China ever since he became prime minister in 2019. One of his first moves was to cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to establish a relationship with Beijing.
China downplayed the agreement, saying the cooperation was in line with international law and shouldn't be "over-interpreted."
Chinese FM spokesperson: The normal law enforcement and security cooperation between China and #SolomonIslands are in line with international law and convention, and should not be over-interpreted. pic.twitter.com/qVNyIeI7Zy— Chinese Consulate General in Sydney (@ChinaConSydney) March 25, 2022
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment.