Solomon Islands has announced it is pushing ahead with a security agreement with China hours after a senior Australian defense force officer said the deal may force Canberra to change the way it conducts air and sea operations in the Pacific.
The Solomon Islands government said officials from both countries had on Thursday “initialled” elements of the proposed security agreement with China which would be signed at a later date.
“The draft framework agreement will be cleaned up and await signatures of the two countries’ foreign ministers,” said the statement issued by the Solomon Islands government’s communication unit.
Australia, New Zealand and the US have all raised concerns about the deal but Solomon Islands said it would continue to uphold its foreign policy of “friends to all and enemies to none”.
The government said it would “work with all partners in providing a safe and secure nation where all people are able to co-exist peacefully”.
The statement was issued after Lt Gen Greg Bilton, Australia’s chief of joint operations, said it “does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from Solomon Islands”.
Bilton was asked about the implications for Australian defense planners if the deal paved the way for temporary stationing of Chinese naval vessels in Solomon Islands.
“They’re in much closer proximity to the Australian mainland, obviously, and that would change the way that we would undertake day‑to‑day operations particularly in the air and at sea,” Bilton told reporters in Canberra.
“We would change our patrolling patterns and our maritime awareness activities.”
Bilton said “a very important aspect” of Australia’s relationship with Solomon Islands had been to provide training to the country’s police force.
“Our training will continue,” he said. “So I guess we find ourselves in a circumstance where we will be present in the Solomon Islands and so too will the Chinese, seeking to provide training and support to the same organisations.”
The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, earlier this week dismissed foreign criticism of the country’s security negotiations with Beijing as “insulting” and blamed the leak of the draft document on “some lunatics and agents of foreign regimes in the government system”.
The draft, which emerged online last week, said Solomon Islands may request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to the country for a range of tasks such as maintaining social order and protecting lives and property.
According to the draft text, the agreement would also pave the way for China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands” while Chinese forces “can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
However, it is unclear whether there will be any minor or substantial changes when the agreement is ultimately signed.
Solomon Islands sought to thank its traditional partners in Thursday’s statement.
“Solomon Islands seeks greater security partnership with other partners and neighbors and once again express its deep gratitude and sincere appreciation to Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Fiji for the presence of their Security Personnel in Solomon Islands,” it said.
“We thank their respective governments and peoples for the service of their professionals whom we welcome and acknowledge with a thankful heart.”
The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, had also urged Solomon Islands to reconsider the “unprecedented” security pact with China.
“My fear is that we – the Pacific islands – would be at the epicenter of a future confrontation between these major powers,” Panuelo wrote in a letter released on Thursday.
In Senate estimates hearings in Canberra on Thursday, Australian officials said they were aware of discussions “for some time” but would not be more specific about when they first learned of the draft deal.
Officials confirmed that the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, had had “direct contact” with Sogavare, but this was not in the form of a telephone conversation.
The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, rejected claims the deal was a failure of Australian diplomacy.
“I do not accept that,” Birmingham told senators. “Are you suggesting that a better form of diplomacy would be to hector and lecture” Solomon Islands not to take the deal?
A former senior Australian intelligence official had warned that the proposed treaty was an “adverse development for Australia’s security” and would also have wider implications for Pacific stability, but predicted it may be too late to stop the deal.
Richard Maude, head of the Office of National Assessments from 2013 to 2016 and an experienced former diplomat, said the agreement “could spark responses from other countries, including Australia, leading to a more crowded Pacific in a military sense”.
China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that countries should “earnestly respect Solomon Islands’ sovereignty and its independent decisions instead of deciding what others should and should not do in a condescending manner”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism