Australia’s defence minister said on Friday any move to establish a Chinese military base in neighbouring Solomon Islands would be concerning, after a draft security document between Beijing and Honiara was leaked online.
Reuters confirmed with a Solomon Islands government official on Thursday that a security treaty with China would need to go to cabinet for discussion, and would match the security treaty signed with Australia that allows for the deployment of armed forces to Honiara.
The Australian security treaty was signed before Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.
The potential for Chinese military vessels to be based in Australia’s neighbourhood has sparked alarm in Canberra, which clashed verbally with Beijing last month after a Chinese navy ship passing through Australia’s northern economic exclusion zone aimed a laser pointer at an Australian surveillance plane.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said in an interview with Channel Nine that Australia had 50 police in the Solomon Islands at the request of Honiara and they would remain there until 2023.
“We would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government,” he said.
“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.”
Australia’s High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands Lachlan Strahan said on Twitter he had met Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Wednesday, a day before the security pact draft was leaked online, to pledge A$21 million ($15.8 million) in aid, and the construction of two wharves for Solomon Island patrol boats.
Australia’s federal police commissioner had also travelled to Honiara to meet his counterpart in January, after Australia took part in a multinational policing force in November to restore civil order after riots, at the request of Sogavare.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said security pact discussions between Solomon Islands and China were “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it’s one that is adverse to Australia’s national security interests”.
The draft agreement would make Honiara available to Chinese naval and intelligence ships, he said.
“When you’ve got a country that is as close to Australia’s own territorial shores as the Solomon Islands … this is a big change in Australia’s immediate strategic environment,” he told ABC radio.
The Pacific Island nation of less than a million people lies 2,000 km (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, which has experienced worsening diplomatic ties with Beijing.
Canberra had adhered to a doctrine for decades, under the ANZUS treaty with the United States, to keep Pacific island countries compatible with Australian and U.S. security interests, Rudd said.
Dutton rejected suggestions from the Opposition Labor party that Australia had “dropped the ball” on support to the Pacific region, and pointed to recent aid provided to Tonga in the wake of a volcanic disaster.
Labor defence spokesperson Richard Marles said the Pacific should be the focus of Australia’s foreign policy, so Australia was the “natural partner of choice when it comes to security”. Australia will hold a general election in May.
Australia has offered A$2 billion in infrastructure financing to the Pacific islands to counter China’s growing aid influence.
Australia funded a fibre optic submarine cable connecting Solomon Islands to Australia, replacing Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s bid in 2018, over concerns cables laid by China would jeopardise regional security.
China has imposed a series of trade sanctions on Australian exports ranging from wine to coal tensions between the two countries have worsened in recent years.
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