The draft security co-operation agreement, which the Australian government has acknowledged, was shared on social media on Thursday and proposes giving China the right to use its forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
It would also allow Chinese ships to visit and make stopovers on the archipelago, which sits about 1700km off the coast of Queensland.
“Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties,” the draft document states.
That would potentially put Chinese forces within striking distance at a time when tensions over trade, diplomacy and China’s increasing militarisation of islands in the South China Sea have been increasing.
Asked about the document, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told 9News.com.au it “would be concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region”.
“The successful response by the Pacific family, at Solomon Islands request, to help restore calm after civil unrest in Honiara shows that members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security,” they said.
“The Pacific family is able to provide security assistance without the need for external support and stand ready to assist further if needed.
“Pacific Island nations have the right to make sovereign decisions. Australia’s cooperation with our Pacific Family is focused on the economic prosperity, security and development of our region.”
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews sidestepped questions about the document but said Australia had always done all it could to help the Solomon Islands.
“The Morrison government has been very clear on its position in relation to China in relation to the Pacific region,” she said, on Thursday afternoon.
“That is, that is our backyard, that is our neighbourhood and we are very concerned of any activity that is taking place in the Pacific Islands.
“Our Pacific Island friends know that we are there to support them.”
Dr Anna Powles, senior international security lecturer at New Zealands’ Massey University, said the document “raises a lot of questions (and concerns)”.
“With Parliament due to sit in Honiara (and the existing security concerns which led to a RPNGC deployment to Solomons) it will be interesting to see whether the agreement is raised by the opposition,” she said, on Twitter.
“Article 1 refers to police, armed police, and military as well as ‘other law enforcement and armed forces’.
“What is the distinction betwen (sic) police and armed police? Is this a ref to PAP? Who are the other law enforcement and armed forces? What are the ‘other tasks’?
“Article 1 refs China’s ‘own needs’. What are these needs (strategic interests?) and what if they cut across Solomon Islands’ interests or the interests of Solomon Islands’ key partners such as Australia or PNG?”
“This has serious security implications for the Pacific Islands region, including Australia.”
The agreement, if signed as is, would enter into force for a period of five years.
It would also prevent either party from disclosing “cooperation information” without the written consent of the other.