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China and Solomon Islands draft secret security pact, raising alarm in the Pacific

SYDNEY, Australia >> A leaked document has revealed that China and the Solomon Islands are close to signing a security agreement that could open the door to Chinese troops and naval warships flowing into a Pacific Island nation that played a pivotal role in World War II.

The agreement, kept secret until now, was shared online Thursday night by opponents of the deal and verified as legitimate by the Australian government. Although it is marked as a draft and cites a need for “social order” as a justification for sending Chinese forces, it has set off alarms throughout the Pacific, where concerns about China’s intentions have been growing for years.

“This is deeply problematic for the United States and a real cause of concern for our allies and partners,” Charles Edel, the inaugural Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said 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.”

It is not clear which side initiated the agreement, but if signed, the deal would give Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands the ability to call on China for protection of his own government while granting China a base of operations between the United States and Australia that could be used to block shipping traffic across the South Pacific.

Five months ago, protesters unhappy with Beijing’s secretive influence attacked the prime minister’s residence, burned businesses in the capital’s Chinatown and left three people dead. Now the worst-case scenario some Solomon Islanders envision would be a breakdown of democracy before or during next year’s election, with more unrest and the threat of China moving in to maintain the status quo.

The leaked document states that “Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property.”

It allows China to provide “assistance on other tasks” and requires secrecy, noting, “Neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party.”

Matthew Wale, leader of the opposition party in the Solomon Islands’ parliament, said he feared that the “very general, overarching, vague” agreement could be used for anything.

“The crux of it is that this is all about political survival for the prime minister,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the national security of Solomon Islands.”

For Beijing, the deal could offer its own potential reward. “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands,” the draft states.

It also says the Solomons will provide “all necessary facilities.”

The Chinese Embassy in the Solomon Islands did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Australia, which has traditionally been the islands’ main security partner — also sending police officers to quell the unrest in November at the government’s request — responded swiftly to the leaked document.

“We would be concerned by any actions that destabilize the security of our region,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “Members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security.”

Despite such affirmations, Australia has been losing influence in the Solomons for years. The larger country has a history of condescending to the region, downplaying its concerns about climate change and often describing it as its own “backyard.”

Sogavare has made no secret of his desire to draw China closer. In 2019, soon after he was elected, he announced that the island would end its 36-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own, in order to establish official ties with Beijing. He argued that Beijing would deliver the infrastructure and support that the country needed.

The Sogavare government quickly signed agreements giving Chinese companies the right to build roads and bridges and to reopen one of the country’s gold mines. A Chinese company even tried to lease the entire island of Tulagi.

That deal was eventually deemed illegal, after critics rose up in anger. Residents of Tulagi and Malaita, an island province where local leaders expressed strong opposition to China, have said that bribes are constantly being paid by proxies of Beijing with bags of cash and promises of kickbacks for senior leaders often made during all-expenses-paid trips to China.

The violent protests in November in the Solomon Islands reflected those frustrations. They erupted on the island of Guadalcanal, in the capital, Honiara, where U.S. troops fought a brutal battle against the Japanese starting in 1942. And the clashes were sparked by anger over allegations of China-fueled corruption and a perceived unequal distribution of resources, which has left Malaita less developed despite having the country’s largest population.

Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani — who has banned Chinese companies from Malaita while accepting U.S. aid — said that the anger stemmed from “the national government’s leadership.”

“They are provoking the people to do something that is not good,” he said in November.

Wale said he has encouraged the prime minister to negotiate with Malaita, with little success.

“The political discourse over these things is nonexistent,” he said, adding that the proposed agreement with China would make the relationship more volatile.

Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said the recent upheaval and continued insecurity point to high levels of stress on the government over the pandemic, the economy and “long-standing concerns about the capturing of the state and political elites by foreign interests.”

“Some of the biggest implications here are about how strategic competition is disrupting local government,” Powles said.

U.S. officials have also become increasingly concerned. In interviews over the past few years, they have often cited the Solomons as a grave example of China’s approach throughout the Pacific, which involves cultivating decision-makers to open the door for Chinese businesses, migration and access to strategic resources and locations — most likely, the Americans believe, for civilian and military uses, at sea, and for satellite communications.

Many Pacific islands, including Kiribati and Fiji, have seen a sharp increase in Chinese diplomats, construction deals and Chinese migration over the past five years. Disputes and tensions have been growing over Beijing’s role in a region that has often either been ignored or been seen as little more than dots on the map for great powers to toy with.

Last month, during a visit to Fiji that focused heavily on competition with China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would soon open an embassy in the Solomon Islands after closing one in the 1990s. It is still many months from being operational and on Friday, U.S. officials did not initially respond to requests for comment.

“They certainly can do more and faster,” Wale said. “They just seem to be dragging their feet.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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