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Solomon Islands reassures an anxious Australia as it works on a China security deal

By Simone McCarthy and Lizzy Yee, CNN

The Solomon Islands is seeking to expand its security relationship with China, its government confirmed on Friday, after reports that such an agreement was in the works fueled concern from Australian officials.

A Solomon Islands government statement said Friday that Honiara was in the process of “diversifying the country’s security partnership including with China.”

“The Government is working to sign off and implement a number of development frameworks with China to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments,” read the statement from the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The potential arrangement comes as Australia and the United States have become increasingly wary of the expanding footprint of an assertive China in the region, in particular as China has increased its maritime capabilities and militarized islands in the South China Sea.

Australian officials voiced their concerns about a potential security arrangement between Beijing and Honiara after leaked documents, purporting to be a draft of the security pact, circulated on social media. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of these documents.

“We want peace and stability in the region. We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out in the region,” Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in an interview with Australia’s Channel Nine news on Friday.

He also voiced concern that such a security arrangement, potentially covering Chinese military assistance in the Pacific nation, could eventually lead to a permanent Chinese military presence in the country, which is one of Australia’s closest neighbors — and would be a first for China in the region.

“We would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government,” Dutton said.

Existing Australian ties

Australia has an existing security agreement with the Solomon Islands, active since 2018, which allows Australian police, defense and civilian personnel to deploy rapidly to the islands in the event of security threats.

The Solomon Islands government noted that agreement in their statement Friday, saying it will “continue to preserve its Security Agreement with Australia as it develops and deepen its relations with all partners including with China.”

The statement also says that the Solomon Islands is working to “sign off and implement” arrangements with China, in the areas of civil aviation, trade, and education, including sending more students to China to study abroad.

On Thursday, Solomon Islands Minister for Police, National Security and Correctional Services Anthony Veke also announced in a statement that the two governments had inked an agreement for cooperation on policing, to “strengthen bilateral police and law enforcement cooperation.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin did not respond directly to a question on the pending security agreement on Friday, but said the two countries “conduct normal law enforcement and security cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”

When asked about the Australian government’s concerns that China could seek to build a military base on the Solomon Islands, Wang said he hoped “relevant parties can take an objective and calm view and not over-interpret it.”

Wang said it was “irresponsible for some Australian politicians to talk about China’s coercion and create tension,” adding that this was “not conducive to regional stability and development.”

Diplomatic partners

The Solomon Islands only recently established diplomatic relations with Beijing, with the government recognizing mainland China over Taiwan in 2019 — a decision over which the government has faced pressure from citizens.

That was one issue that came to bear during violent protests in the capital, Honiara last November — when Australia deployed police and defense personnel to support local authorities.

A spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Thursday pointed to Australia’s role in “restoring calm” at that time as an example of how “members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security.”

“The Pacific family is able to provide security assistance without the need for external support and stand ready to assist further if needed…We would be concerned by any actions that destabilize the security of our region,” the spokesperson said.

When asked about a relationship between China and the Solomon Islands on Thursday, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews underscored the desire for stability.

“That is our backyard, that is our neighborhood, and we are very concerned about any activity that is taking place in the Pacific Islands. Our Pacific Island friends know that we are there to support them,” she said.

Analysts said that the signing of a security agreement could have significant implications for the region and could complicate Australia’s own security position.

“There is no question that the balance of security in the region would be affected,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.

“It would enormously complicate (Australia’s) ability to move submarines and ships and aircraft along the Australian east coast. They will be watched from (the) Solomons.”

Anna Powles, a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University of New Zealand, said such a security arrangement would raise “significant concerns about the possibility that China might seek to develop…a refueling depot, which could potentially morph into a base of some type.”

“That is an obvious and direct concern for Canberra,” she said.

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