China Seals Controversial Defense Pact With Solomon Islands

PLA Navy
Image courtesy PLA Navy

Published Apr 19, 2022 10:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

Despite pressure from the U.S. and Australia, the government of the Solomon Islands has signed a "framework agreement" on security issues with the government of China, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Tuesday.  

The details of the framework agreement have not been disclosed, and an additional signing step to formally complete the deal may be scheduled for next month, according to Reuters. 

A leaked copy of the initial draft of the agreement includes permission for the PLA Navy to "make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands." It also contains a formal mechanism for the Solomons government to request Chinese military police and troops to control civil unrest (a recent challenge for the government in Honiara). In a sign of the deal's implications for local sovereignty, it also allows for China to deploy its own military capabilities to defend its investments and its citizens within the Solomon Islands. 

"China-Solomon Islands security cooperation aims at promoting social stability and long-term tranquility in Solomon Islands, which conforms to the common interests of Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region," claimed Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Tuesday. "[It] follows the principle of equality and mutual benefit, and is based on respecting the will and actual need of Solomon Islands."

Though the draft includes rights for China to make port calls and deploy troops, Solomon Islands prime minister Manassah Sogavare has promised that he has no intention of allowing China to build a formal military base in his nation. 

The archipelago, located just east of New Guinea, would be an ideal base for any navy with an interest in the sea lanes of the South Pacific. Its islands served that purpose for the Japanese during WWII, and the American campaign to retake the Solomons was a key focus of the war in the Pacific Theater. For China, the Solomons would provide the PLA Navy's easternmost resupply point yet, removing the need to transit the First and Second Island Chains to make a port call. 

The agreement is concerning for American and Australian defense planners, since it would allow the PLA to project its capabilities further east. "The broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of [Chinese] military forces to the Solomon Islands,” warned U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday. 

The United States has not had an embassy in Honiara for nearly three decades, and it is rarely on the itinerary for top-level officials from the State Department, but U.S. representatives will be heading to the Solomon Islands this week to discuss the Chinese defense agreement with Sogavare's administration. The White House said Tuesday that it will dispatch two officials with regional responsibilities - Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs - to lead the talks.