Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands announced that his country is ready to sign a security agreement with China. Sogavare disclosed that the Solomons would not allow the construction of a Chinese military base as part of the security deal, a concern that the West has previously expressed due to the Chinese’s expansionist rhetoric in the region.
“Government is conscious of the security ramification of hosting a military base, and it will not be careless to allow such initiative to take place under its watch,” a statement said.
Sogavare has not released further details on the agreement. However, a draft of the confidential agreement was leaked last week, indicating that Beijing will be allowed to construct and operate military bases in the country, which is approximately 1,050 miles (1,700 kilometers) off the northeastern coast of Australia.
The possibility of Chinese militarization in the area raised concerns within the region’s powers, Australia and New Zealand. Note that the Solomon Islands previously had good diplomatic relations with Taiwan until 2019, when the Solomons defected and switched to China through a resolution. This was conveniently followed by a donation of $8.5 million in development funds from China.
“We see such acts as a potential militarization of the region and also see very little reason in terms of the Pacific security for such a need and such a presence,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Radio NZ. “We do see this as gravely concerning,” she added.
Sogavare dismissed foreign criticism regarding the country’s security pact with China as “insulting” and branded those who leaked the drafts as “lunatics.” He also criticized some Australian media, who have been advocating for forced regime change on the Solomons.
“Discussions in the Australian public media encouraging the invasion of Solomon Islands to force a regime change, Mr. Speaker, does nothing to strengthen our bilateral relations. When a helpless mouse is cornered by vicious cats, it will do anything to survive,” said Sogavare.
The Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister also said that China’s presence in the Pacific is not a threat to regional security, adding that the treaty can only be activated upon the island nation’s request.
“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends, and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied militarization attempts in the Solomons, saying that the “starting point” of the deal is to ensure the security of people and property. “It does not have any military overtones,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters. “The relevant remarks and speculation in the media are groundless,” he added.
Cozying up with China is part of Sogavare’s “diversification” policy that intends to balance out the influence of regional powers for the benefit of the Solomons.
“We welcome any country that is willing to support us in our security space. There is no devious intention nor secret plan – this is a decision by a sovereign nation that has its national interest at heart,” said Sogavare.
He noted that his country had previously requested the Australian government to build their own military facility in the country but was refused given the latter’s commitments with Papua New Guinea. Nonetheless, Sogavare said he had no interest in “pitching into any geopolitical power struggle,” adding that the Solomons would not “pick sides.”
Sogavare disclosed that he has been in talks with leaders from Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea since the leak of the controversial draft and reiterated the importance of their traditional security allies.
“I would like to make it abundantly clear that the Solomon Islands’ security arrangement with Australia remains in place, intact,” he said. “But in moving forward… to achieve our security needs, it is clear we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners. What is wrong with that?”
Beijing has not been discrete about its ambition to set up military facilities in the Pacific area. Several Chinese analysts, including Qi Huaigao, have suggested the acquisition of bases in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Samoa if China intends to compete with the US in the Pacific.
“(China) wants to be able to operate its rapidly growing navy out in the wider Pacific, complicating US plans in the event of a future conflict,” David Capie, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand told Radio Free Asia.
“A base in the Pacific would let People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels operate far away from their home ports for longer and in the future might also be used for intelligence gathering and surveillance,” he added.
Military footing in the Solomons would provide China the ability to intercept or blockade crucial sea routes between US and Australia, says Head of the National Security College at the National University of Australia Rory Medcalf.
“In the event of military confrontation in the region, it would increase China’s ability to essentially keep Australia out of the conflict and to basically blockade or coerce Australia,” he said. “So, in the long run, the security implications are very real.”