Australia’s Pacific Minister, ACT Senator Zed Seselja has flown to Honiara to strengthen Australia’s relationship with Solomon Islands after a leaked Chinese request to import arms was made public.
This is despite the government currently being in caretaker mode due to the upcoming federal election.
China proposed importing firearms including rifles, two machine guns and a sniper rifle alongside a 10-person security team into Honiara to protect its embassy and staff during riots in 2021, according to a leaked letter which was made public on Tuesday.
But Australia already had concerns about Chinese influence in the region with a Sino-Solomons security pact in its final stages and due to be formally signed off by the island’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
Mr Seselja says his visit follows recent dialogue between Solomon Islands government and Australian officials.
“My discussions will include the proposed Solomon Islands-China security agreement,” the minister said in a broad statement.
“We respect the right of Solomon Islands to make sovereign decisions about its national security.
“Our view remains that the Pacific family will continue to meet the security needs of our region.”
Mr Seselja is due to return on Wednesday.
The request to import the firearms along with the security detail were rejected by the Solomon Islands government.
Australia sent police, diplomats and defence personnel to the Solomon Islands to provide stability and security after riots broke out in late November following a formal request for support by Mr Sogavare.
The riots were in part due to the government’s links with China and several Chinese businesses were targeted as protesters became violent.
China sent a diplomatic note with the request on December 3, saying it feared its embassy would be targeted next.
It said the security personnel would hold diplomatic passports, protecting them from local laws.
National security expert Matthew Sussex says the plan to import the security personnel and weapons into Honiara as riots broke out throughout the capital wasn’t a huge surprise when rioters were targeting ethnic Chinese people.
“It’s not a huge overreaction on face value but it depends on how much of it is related to other deals between China and Sogavare if at all,” Dr Sussex told AAP.
“That said, we do know that when China does things like police training, protection detail and security it does tend to be linked to other projects – like Chinese investments.”
Dr Sussex says while there are no immediate security threats on face value, boots on the ground do create a precedent, especially with the Sino-Solomon security pact in the works.
The precedent such a move sets was also canvassed in a letter to the island’s police and national security office from foreign ministry head Collin Beck.
The letter said while “the ministry could not guarantee the safety of the embassy and staff … (so) in this regard, we have no objection to the request”.
The move “sadly sets a precedent but China is a special case noting public debate was and remains directed against China’s interest in the country”, it said.
Mr Seselja’s trip comes ahead of a planned trip by the United States senior security adviser Kurt Campbell to Honiara in April to convince the government not to sign the security pact with China and follows two top Australian intelligence officials visiting in recent weeks.
Labor accused the Morrison government of taking its eye off the ball in the Pacific, with leader Anthony Albanese questioning why a minister hadn’t been sent – just hours before Mr Seselja was in the air.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Mr Sogavare had assured him a Chinese military base would not be allowed in the country.
For more news: