New Zealand politicians say they have uncovered further evidence that China is moving to establish military bases in the Solomon Islands. Labour’s Ingrid Leary and National’s Simon O’Connor say Pacific nations need to urgently unite to counter China’s ambition.
Our information shows that China is intending to militarise the Solomon Islands by stealth on various small and isolated atolls through infrastructure developments.
The most recent development involves the Polynesian island of Isabel in the West of the Solomon Islands, which has its own local governing authority.
Two years ago, the Governor of Isabel Leslie Kikolo refused to publicly acknowledge a deal with a government-owned Chinese company seeking a long-term infrastructure and military base on the atoll.
Last month the Provincial Assembly of Isabel overthrew Kikolo replacing him with Rhoda Sikalabu, who is known to be sympathetic to Chinese interests. This means the Isabel-China deal is back on the table and could be signed off any day.
While we respect Solomon Island self-determination, these developments must be considered in the regional context and the undermining of regional stability.
We have already seen a response to the leak of the Solomon Islands-China Security Pact by the United States to exert its own influence on the region. It is time for Pacific Island nations to rally together to consider the consequences of courting various world powers – and to understand that if they attempt to play them off against each other, they do so at their own peril.
The Solomon Islands are not the only ones at risk. Covid, climate change and frequent and significant natural disasters had made tourism-dependent Pacific countries less financially resilient and exposed them to high levels of foreign debt, emergency relief, and offers of infrastructure support, which may ultimately come at the cost of their rules-based systems. More than ever, they are vulnerable to corruption and bribery from foreign actors.
We respect the region’s self-determination. Part of that process must be holding each other to account regarding relationships which are developed, and opportunities which are exploited, for the greater good of the region.
Chinese military ambition in Isabel is evident in an unsigned printed Letter of Intent dated September 29, 2020 from a Chinese company Avic-International Project Engineering Company supporting the development of “naval and infrastructure projects” there for vocational training, economic development and “upgrading of equipment”.
In the letter, the company describes itself as “state-owned” with a turnover of USD$280 million and a track record in Cote d’Ivoire – a West African nation which has received a reported $6 billion worth of Chinese loans and investments through China’s Belt and Road expansion.
The letter references to establishing “civil and military” relationships between Isabel and China for a minimum of 75 years.
China is playing the long game, and anyone who has been watching the Pacific over the past decade can see a ramping up of its interest and focus in this whole region.
Commercial deals with other Solomons provincial governors have been signed and then cancelled due to local backlash when they leaked on to social media.
This includes a 2020 contract between two other government-owned Chinese companies and the then-premier Hon Stanley Manetiva to lease the former capital of the Solomon Islands, Tulaghi, in the Central Province for 75 years to set up oil and gas works.
The 5km by 3km island is strikingly similar in size and geography to islands and atolls that China has built for military bases in the South China Sea.
Moves are afoot to stack local governance bodies with pro-China leaders who will agree to deals with infrastructure companies owned by Chinese government interests.
Chinese nationals are currently on the isolated atoll Ontong Java which lies between Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, purportedly to purchase sea cucumbers which are a delicacy in China, and which are vulnerable to illegal fishing.
Initiating business relationships are a common way of facilitating Chinese military involvement in foreign territories. Given the atoll’s isolation and strategic location, we worry that regional interests don’t know what is happening there, nor appreciate the significance.
These developments add weight to international concerns expressed about the unsigned draft security framework which enables China to militarise the Solomon Islands.
We have a copy of the leaked security framework which includes China being able to “according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ships visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.
It goes on to say that “relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
That arrangement includes the Solomon Islands being able to “request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to “assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property … or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties”.
The framework says: “Solomon Islands shall provide all necessary facilities and assistance, including but not limited to the border entry of personnel and weaponry, intelligence and information support, logistical support, and legal status and judicial immunity of the relevant personnel.”
Costs would be determined through “friendly consultation” by the parties. The framework automatically rolls over every five years, unless it is terminated in writing with six months’ notice by one of the parties.
While it doesn’t specify who would sign on behalf of the Solomon Islands or Chinese government, it includes cc provisions to the “Foreign Affairs Authority, Public Security Authority and Defence Authority”.
Development funding and assistance, which strengthens democratic institutions in the Pacific’s small island states, is an investment in regional stability.
New Zealand should be ready to support and strengthen regional governance institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum, so that the region could resist overtures from much more powerful countries and chart its own future.
Some foreign influences undoubtedly had positive benefits for Pacific Island countries, including tertiary scholarships and training programmes by countries which respected democracy, human rights and the rules-based order.
While these are important for academic and leadership development, they also mean influence and connection for the sponsoring countries. Currently, most tertiary opportunities came from countries outside the region.
This is something that countries with close links to the Pacific should consider stepping up and coordinating strategically, as part of a broader approach to building resilience and tino rangatiratanga (self-determination).
We urge all Pacific Island nations to take a long view of all offers of help and assistance.
We are about to invite Members of Parliament from across the Pacific to join the Inter-Parliamentary alliance on China. IPAC is a global group of legislators working towards reform on how democratic countries approach relations with China.