1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsSolomon Islands

Australia sends minister to Solomon Islands over China pact

April 13, 2022

Australia has dispatched a cabinet minister to the Solomon Islands over a security pact between the Pacific nation and China. Western allies fear that Beijing could use the agreement to establish a military foothold.

The streets of downtown Honiara
The streets of downtown Honiara were the scene of rioting last NovemberImage: Mavis Podokolo/AFP/Getty Images

Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja arrived in the Solomon Islands on Wednesday to ask the country not to sign a proposed security agreement between the archipelago nation and China.

The visit took place despite a national election campaign in Australia that would typically see ministers avoid significant diplomatic engagements. However the opposition Labor Party supported the trip going ahead despite the campaign. 

Why is Australia worried?

Officials from both China and the Solomon Islands have yet to formally sign a security pact that the islands' South Pacific neighbors, as well as the United States, claim could threaten regional stability.

Seselja said his 2-day trip would would "further strengthen Australia's relationship with Solomon Islands."

"My discussions will include the proposed Solomon Islands-China security agreement," Seselja said in a statement.

Both Washington and Canberra have had long-standing concerns about China possibly building a naval base in the South Pacific. Such a development would allow Beijing to project its naval power much further than it can at present.

On Tuesday, a memo that was leaked on social media shows the Chinese government had told the Solomon Islands in December that it wanted to send a security team to the island to protect its embassy in the wake of riots in the capital in November. The mission would include a security team of 10 Chinese police with weapons that would include machine guns and a sniper rifles, as well as electronic listening devices..

Confirming that leaked memo, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in a statement that it was "nothing to be concerned about."

Chinese and Solomon Island officials are said to have agreed parts of the final security deal, although the document has not been made public.

A separate leaked draft said it would allow for armed Chinese police to be deployed at the request of the Solomon Islands to maintain "social order." It would also allow Chinese naval vessels to restock in Honiara.

Under the agreement, neither party would be allowed to disclose the missions publicly without the consent of the other.

Why has there been unrest?

The Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea and home to some 700,000 people, switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 .

That move — which became a lightning rod for wider frustration about Chinese investment in the Pacific nation — was rejected by many and was seen to be a contributing factor to riots last November.

Amid the unrest, protesters tried to storm the parliament and embarked on a deadly 3-day rampage, setting fire to much of Honiara's Chinatown.

Inter-provincial tension is also a driver of unrest. Many of the protesters reportedly came from Malaita province, a neighboring island that has a history of disputes with Guadalcanal province where the government is based. Malaita islanders were particularly opposed to the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, which only a handful of countries in the world formally recognize, because China forces people to choose between Beijing and Taipei.

More than 200 peacekeepers were deployed from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand to restore calm.

Sogavare on Tuesday said that Australia and New Zealand would remain the "partner of choice when it comes to the need to call for assistance in critical times."

rc/msh (AFP, Reuters)