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Radio Free Asia

NZ 'grave concern' over proposed China-Solomon Islands pact

Observers say a base could extend the range of China's navy and allow intelligence gathering.

By RFA Staff 2022.03.28 -- New Zealand's leader voiced grave concern Monday over a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands that, if approved, could see Beijing establish a military base in the South Pacific.

Australia's prime minister also reiterated his nation's concern about the planned agreement that was leaked online last week.

The security pact would allow Beijing to set up military bases and deploy troops in the Pacific island nation, "marking the start of a much sharper military competition than anything we've seen in the region for decades," said David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern said on Monday that her country sees the pact as "gravely concerning."

"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," Adern told Radio NZ when asked about a possible stationing of Chinese military ships in the Solomon Islands.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as saying that the agreement was a "reminder of constant pressures and threats that present in our region to our own national security."

Morrison was due to speak to leaders of Papua New Guinea and Fiji on Monday to discuss the matter which he called "an issue of concern for the region, but it has not come as a surprise."

Capie said that if approved by the Solomon Islands' cabinet, the agreement "would allow the People's Republic of China (PRC) to deploy police and military personnel to Solomon Islands with the consent of the host government, and potentially provide for refueling and support of Chinese ships.

'Clear evidence of Beijing intention'

According to Capie, there have been a lot of reports in recent years about China looking to improve its access to South Pacific states and "possibly seeking some sort of military or dual-use facility."

"Some of the stories seemed pretty fanciful, but this draft agreement is clear evidence of Beijing's ambitions," he said.

China has denied any ulterior motives beyond promoting "regional peace and stability."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: "As two sovereign and independent states, China and Solomon Islands conduct normal law enforcement and security cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit."

"We hope relevant sides will look at this in an objective and rational light and refrain from reading too much into it," Wang said.

China has growing interests in the region including trade, investments, a sizeable diaspora and a large deep water fishing fleet.

But Capie noted that China "also wants to be able to operate its rapidly growing navy out in the wider Pacific, complicating U.S. plans in the event of a future conflict."

"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 said.

The draft agreement would still need to go through the Solomon Islands cabinet and "there will be plenty of twists and turns before this is a done deal, if it ever is," the New Zealand analyst said.

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