Australia and New Zealand expressed concern on Friday about the impact on regional security of military cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands after a draft document outlining proposed cooperation was leaked.
The security treaty, if concluded, would be a major inroad for China in a region that U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand have for decades seen as their “back yard.”
In its first comments on the matter, the Solomon Islands government confirmed it was “diversifying the country’s security partnership including with China,” and would sign off a number of agreements with Beijing “to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments.”
“Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country,” the government said in a statement.
The proposed security arrangements with China would cover humanitarian needs besides maintaining the rule of law, it added.
The nation needed to rebuild its economy after recent riots, and would sign an air services agreement with China and increase trade.
A security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017, would be preserved as Solomon Islands deepened relations with China, it said.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had not spoken to his Solomon Islands counterpart in the 24 hours since news of the Pacific island’s security discussions with China were made public.
Australia and New Zealand were part of the “Pacific family” and talks were being held with Honiara, Morrison told reporters earlier on Friday.
“There are others who may seek to pretend to influence and may seek to get some sort of hold in the region and we are very conscious of that.”
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, a Solomon Islands official told Reuters on Thursday.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told ABC Radio the proposed pact was “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it’s one that is adverse to Australia’s national security interests.”
The Pacific Island nation of fewer than a million people, 2,000 km (1,240 miles) northeast of Australia, switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, signaling China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said in a statement that Pacific partners should be transparent in their actions.
“Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, however developments within this purported agreement could destabilize the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security,” she said.
Australia and New Zealand have police in the Solomon Islands, part of a multinational policing contingent invited by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to restore order after riots in November.
The Solomon Islands resident who published online the leaked draft of the security agreement told Reuters the document had come from a police source.
It covers Chinese police and military assisting with social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.
Australia’s defense minister Peter Dutton said any move to establish a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be concerning.
“We want peace and stability in the region. We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out,” Dutton told Channel Nine.
The United States said last month it would open a U.S. embassy in Honiara amid fears China was seeking to military relations there.