China is “very likely” to put troops in the Solomon Islands after signing a contentious security deal with the Pacific nation, Australia’s home affairs minister said Wednesday.
The deal was announced by Beijing last Tuesday, weeks after a draft version leaked on social media and sparked concern it could open the door to a Chinese military presence in the South Pacific.
Asked how realistic it was that China would request to put troops in the Solomon Islands within the next year, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told 4BC radio it was “very likely.”
“It is likely that will be the path that China will be taking in the Pacific region,” she continued.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has repeatedly said there will be no Chinese military base built in his country under the security deal but has not made the final version of the pact public.
The leaked draft contained provisions allowing for Chinese security and naval deployments to the Solomon Islands, including language stating the “forces of China” would be empowered to protect “the safety of Chinese personnel” and “major projects.”
Andrews questioned the timing of Beijing’s announcement of the deal in the run-up to the Australian federal election on May 21, which has been dominated by debate about foreign policy and Pacific diplomacy.
“Beijing is clearly very aware that we are in a federal election campaign here at the moment,” she said. “We talk about political interference and that has many forms.”
Beijing’s announcement of the security deal also came just days before a well-publicized visit by US officials to the Solomons.
One of Australia’s top intelligence officials raised concerns late Tuesday about the potential presence of Chinese police in the Pacific nation, which was rocked by violent protests last November that were fuelled in part by rising anti-China sentiment.
Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in India, Director-General of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer described the Solomon Islands as “a fragile, volatile country.”
He said Chinese policing tactics “deployed so ruthlessly in Hong Kong, for example … could incite further instability and violence.”