The Solomon Islands are about to sign a security agreement with China. For neighbors like Australia, the security deal is seen as a threat to see China setting up military presence in the Pacific as Beijing increases its influence in the region.
On March 31, the Solomon Islands announced it found an initial framework agreement on security cooperation with China. But this deal has Pacific neighbors, particularly Australia and New Zealand, worried as they see a potential for Chinese military to get closer their territories and areas of influence.
The Solomon Islands however argue the security deal will help respond to "soft and hard domestic threats" and defends a diversification of their partners.
The Solomon Islands acknowledged the existence of a draft security agreement last week with China. But it didn't provide details other than this would allow China to provide a "safe environment for local and foreign investments" as the government is working with Beijing on development frameworks. It would also include trade relations with China and educational exchange programs between countries. But China would basically have forces to make sure its infrastructure investment is safe.
A leak version of the draft agreement last week showed that the Solomon Islands could "request China to send police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces". China could also "make ship visits, to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands".
Australia, New Zealand, and other neighbors have raised concerns over the last week that the treaty may bring Chinese military presence close to them. The Solomon Islands are less than 2,000 kilometers (1,400 miles) off the coast of Australia. Neighbors further consider China may establish a military base in the Solomon Islands with the treaty.
Australia is the main partner of ths small Pacific country that is however in the middle of strategic maritime routes. The first security agreement signed by the Solomon Islands was with Australia in 2017. But Canberra has been increasingly concerned about China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
In 2018, Australia launched the 'Pacific Step Up' policy to increase ties with other Pacific countries and set a multi-billion dollar infrastructure fund. Meanwhile, China has increased financial support in the region but also increased pressure in the South China Sea and on Taiwan.
"It does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomon Islands," Australia Defense Force's Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said, ABC reported.
For New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the draft agreement was "gravely concerning" in regards to a "potential militarization" of the region she told Radio NZ.
For Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, the country needs to diversify its partners to "achieve our security needs". He however rejected claims that there are plans for China to build a naval military base. As its neighbors have been lobbying to revise his plan, he also said it was "insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs".
Yet in late last year, riots erupted in the Solomon Islands and the government requested help to restore calm on its territory. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea answered positively and sent troops to stabilize the country.
Protests in November started peacefully to ask Prime Minister Sogavare to review his decision from 2019 when he switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. Sogavare has been seeking economic investment from Beijing. In fact, some of the underlying reasons behind the anti-government unrest and the country's division is the presence of Chinese people in the archipelago's economy and the executive power's relations with Beijing.
Chinatown was particularly targeted during the violent episode. And it wasn't the first occurrence of violence against the Chinese community in the last 20 years.
But China also proposed its help at the end of the year. As such, a team of Chinese police officers came late February to the Solomon Islands to train local people on their "anti-riot" skills. Beijing sends material, too. But Australia has also been regularly helping Solomon forces and would find it awkward to share its presence with Chinese officers.
The Federated States of Micronesia, which also receives aid from China, called on Solomon Islands to reconsider its position. For FSM President David Panuelo, this "entirely novel and unprecedented" security agreement with China "poses a risk of increasing geopolitical tensions across the Blue Pacific Continent".
Micronesia considers China as a friend but also an ally to the United States. "The U.S. and China are increasingly at odds with one another," the FSM President wrote in a letter to Sogavare, fearing that "the Pacific Islands would be at the epicenter of a future confrontation between these major powers".
In February, U.S. State Department Antony Blinken said they planned to re-open an embassy in the Solomon Islands. The U.S. also shared concerns over the draft security agreement.
Both the State of Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlegrounds during WWII, the Micronesian president reminded.
The Solomon Islands government defended Thursday a policy of "friends to all and enemies to none," and said the deal would be "cleaned up" before the signatures of respective foreign ministers, without providing details on what it meant.