Why Australia is furious over China’s ‘secret’ Solomon Islands security deal

Beijing now ‘very likely’ to establish military presence in South Pacific, minister warns

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare pictured in Beijing
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang with the Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare
(Image credit: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

Australia’s foreign minister has criticised the “secret” security deal between China and the Solomon Islands, warning that “no document signed and kept away from public view” would change Canberra’s commitment to defending the Pacific region.

Marise Payne told reporters that the agreement was “not transparent”, adding that unlike Australia’s existing security agreement with the Solomon Islands, the details of the deal were being kept under wraps from neighbouring countries.

The agreement between Beijing and the nation of hundreds of South Pacific islands has been criticised as “the worst Australian foreign policy failure in the Pacific in decades”, The Guardian said. So what is in the deal – and why is it so important?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Lack of Pacifics

The deal, announced on Tuesday after some details leaked online, “does not target any third party” and runs “parallel and complementary to the existing bilateral and multilateral security cooperation mechanisms” of the Solomon Islands, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

He said the pact, of which no specific details were released, shows Beijing’s commitment to help “strengthen” the island’s “capacity building to maintain its own security”, adding that areas of cooperation include “maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property, humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response”.

Wang “did not mention any details relating to military cooperation”, The South China Morning Post reported. But “there has been speculation that the deal would allow China’s navy, police and armed forces to deploy in the country”.

The Solomon Islands has denied that Chinese troops could be stationed on its territory. However, Australian home affairs minister Karen Andrews later told reporters that it was “very likely” that Beijing would deploy ground forces as a result of the security deal.

Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has been forced to rely on the “public promises” of his counterpart, Manasseh Sogavare, that the islands “would not allow a Chinese military base or a persistent military presence”, The Guardian added.

The US was quick to threaten “military action” should China attempt to “send police and military personnel” as part of the pact, The Independent reported.

Daniel Kritenbrink, US assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the deal presents “​​potential regional security implications” for the US and its allies, adding: “We wanted to outline for our friends in the Solomons what our concerns are.

“We have respect for the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty. But we also let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns.”

‘Power shift’

The announcement of the security pact, coming just weeks before Australia heads to the polls for national elections, has put “the actions of a foreign state” at the “centre” of a prime ministerial campaign “for the first time in decades”, Reuters said.

Morrison, the incumbent, “saw a hawkish stance on China as an electoral strength”, the news agency added. But as the impact of the Solomon Islands deal “reverberates” around the country, it has put the prime minister’s conservative Liberal Party “on the back foot on national security” amid allegations they are making Australia “less secure”.

Despite the sparse details, it is widely agreed that the deal “allows for the movement of China’s troops and armed police to his [Sogavare’s] nation and the berthing of its warships”, said The Times’ Sydney-based correspondent Bernard Lagan. This is ostensibly to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects” in the islands.

Some military experts even believe that Beijing’s “cargo planes will probably begin arriving in Honiara, the Solomon capital, before Australians go to the polls next month”, he added. Chinese access to a port in Australia’s “near-north” has “long been feared”.

China watcher Aadil Brar said that the formal deal between China and the Solomon Islands represents a Pacific “power shift” that has come about as a result of the “reluctance in Asia-Pacific” of the US and its allies.

In an opinion piece for The Print, an Indian news site, he argued that the pact puts “the US and its allies in a difficult position”, explaining that Washington’s historically “reluctant approach to its presence in the Pacific has left a gap for China to fill”.

For all the “hand-wringing in Canberra over the security deal” the warning signs were there, he added. “Australia knew about the deal with the Solomon Islands days before the document was leaked as a last resort to stalling it.”

But it was too little too late. The US’s strategy for Pacific dominance “is now at stake” as “Chinese military vessels venture further afield”, Brar warned.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.