SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Solomon Islands has signed a policing deal with China and will send a proposal for a broader security agreement covering the military to its cabinet for consideration, an official of the Pacific island nation’s government said on Thursday.
The arrangements are likely to concern the United States, which said in February it would open an embassy in the Solomon Islands after senior U.S. administration officials expressed concern China wanted to create military relationships in the Pacific islands.
The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, which partly fuelled discontent that led to riots in the capital, Honiara, in November.
Australia has historically provided security support to the Solomon Islands and led a policing mission to restore order in the wake of riots, at the request of prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.
Karen Galokale, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services in the Solomon Islands, told Reuters a cooperation agreement signed between the Solomon Islands and China covered policing. She confirmed a wider agreement was being discussed.
“Any other arrangement on broad security would be just the same as the Australian agreement,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview, giving the first public confirmation of the broader security talks.
“It will have to go to Cabinet,” she said.
Australia has a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands covering the deployment of police and armed forces, signed in 2018.
Anthony Veke, minister for police in the Solomon Islands, said in a statement on Thursday that he had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Wang Xiaohong, executive vice minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security, on policing cooperation in a virtual meeting on March 18.
“The signing of this MOU simply shows to the global community that we are here building meaningful cooperation, one that is based on teamwork and seriousness to develop Solomon Islands,” Veke said.
Galokale also attended the virtual meeting.
A draft copy of a security MOU circulated on social media states it would cover Chinese police, armed police and the military assisting the Solomon Islands on social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.
The draft also provides for Chinese naval ships to carry out logistical replenishments in Solomon Islands, fuelling anxiety in Canberra it would be a step towards a Chinese military base in the region.
Galokale said she was aware of the social media reports and would not speculate on timing for the process to approve a security cooperation deal with China.
“We have a broad security treaty with Australia and policing cooperation. If there is anything with the PRC it will be just the same,” she said, referring to China.
On Tuesday, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force published photographs on its website of police training with replica guns provided by China.
In November, about 200 police and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea arrived in Honiara within days of the riots to help restore order.
Galokale said the policing arrangement with China was the same as arrangements the Solomon Islands already had with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
A spokesperson for Australia’s foreign affairs department said Pacific Island nations had the right to make sovereign decisions, but noted the “Pacific family” was successful in restoring calm after civil unrest in Honiara.
“The Pacific family is able to provide security assistance without the need for external support,” the foreign affairs spokesperson said in a statement. “We would be concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region.”
Australia’s minister for home affairs, Karen Andrews, earlier told reporters the Pacific was Australia’s “backyard”, and Canberra was concerned at Chinese military activity in the Pacific islands.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bernadette Baum)