Barely a month after the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, the country’s Central Province has signed an agreement with the Beijing-based Sam Group to develop Tulagi Island, across Ironbottom Sound from the capital Honiara.
Tulagi was the pre-war base of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. During the war its dep-water harbour was used by the US Navy for ship repairs.
The Central Province agreement, signed September 22, would give Beijing-based Sam Group an exclusive five-year development lease for Tulagi Island and its surrounding islands. Central Province premier, Stanley Manetiva, confirmed he had signed the “strategic cooperation agreement” in Honiara with representatives of Sam Group, but said it was not legally binding and the company would have to comply with local laws and respect landowner rights on Tulagi.
Sam Group says a Solomon Islands delegation visited its headquarters in August. The two parties
” … hoped to carry out comprehensive cooperation in energy, chemical industry, investment, trade and other fields in addition to existing cooperation,” the statement said.
This agreement is further evidence of China’s drive across the South Pacific, alarming NZ, Australia and even the US. Some analysts compare it with Japan’s expansionary plans of the early 1940s, frustrated only by the US landings in the Solomons in 1942, including on Tulagi.
Peter Kenilorea, deputy opposition leader, is worried about the lease and says he couldn’t see any protection, or at least any obligation that also safeguards the interests of Central Islands province peoples and the resources. As part of the Tulagi lease, Sam Group would be able to survey the island for oil and gas developments.
Kenilorea’s father, Sir Peter, was the country’s first prime minister after independence in 1979.
The current prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, is back from his first trip to China since opening diplomatic recognition. Five memoranda of understanding were signed, including an agreement for Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
Solomon Islands gained much from talks with officials including President Xi Jinping, he says. The state-owned China Rail has agreed to invest in Solomon Islands.
Sogavare says the MOUs involved agreements on economic and technical cooperation, education and a partnership between Guangdong province and Solomon Islands provinces. Solomon Islands would soon set up a diplomatic mission in Beijing.