25 Mar 2022

China-Solomons security deal 'very concerning' if true - Mahuta

5:33 pm on 25 March 2022

A security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands would be "very concerning" if genuine, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta says.

- POOL -  Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta during the post-Cabinet press conference with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Parliament, Wellington. 07 March, 2022.  NZ Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell

Photo: Pool / NZME

The Australian government has been expressing concern after a leaked draft of the agreement was published online by an advisor to the Malaita Provincial Government Premier Daniel Suidani.

It would allow China to deploy forces to protect Chinese personnel and major projects in the Islands, and make ship visits.

Australian trade minister Dan Tehan told the ABC the government was worried it could undermine the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands, and was "deeply concerning".

In a statement this afternoon, Mahuta said New Zealand's High Commissioner in Honiara would be raising concerns with the Solomons government, "and we will also be raising our concerns directly with China," she said.

"If genuine, this agreement would be very concerning. Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, however developments within this purported agreement could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region's security. This would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbours," she said.

Mahuta said Aotearoa and the Solomon Islands were long-standing partners including on security, and New Zealand maintained an active police and defence force presence there.

"We encourage all partners in the Pacific to be transparent with their actions and intentions, and encourage assistance to be targeted in a manner that enables inclusive and sustainable development and supports regional stability."

Pacific regional cooperation on security issues was enshrined in the Pacific Islands Forum's Biketawa Declaration, she said, and New Zealand strongly supported it.

"We will continue to work closely with all partners to advance the best interests of the Pacific region and New Zealand is focused on supporting long-term resilience outcomes in the Pacific, in line with Pacific priorities."

The ABC reported it had verified the document as genuine, but it was a draft and believed to not have been formally signed by both governments.

It was also unclear whether the document was what would be presented to the Solomon Islands' Cabinet.

Australia yesterday confirmed its Solomons International Assistance Force would remain in the country until the end of next year.

Massey University Defence and Security senior lecturer Dr Anna Powles told Checkpoint the document is real, with the chief of staff in the Solomon Islands confirming today that it is currently in draft form.

It has the potential to degrade and disrupt security in the Pacific region, she said.

"If the agreement in the current form, noting that it is likely to go through very vigorous discussions and there is increased pressure now given the exposure of the agreement, certainly in it's current form it is deeply concerning."

It is opaque but gives a clear idea of what China's strategic intentions are in the region, she said.

The concern is that it could morph into a military base, she said.

"Such a deal does raise wider concerns within the Pacific Islands region about increased militarisation and that's something both the New Zealand prime minister has mentioned previously, in the past, several years ago and that's something that will be of concern to other Pacfic Island countries as well."

Approaching it from a regional perspective through the Pacific Islands Forum is probably the best way to go, as is reinvesting in the Solomon Islands, she said.