Keeping an eye on China and the Solomons – let’s hope the PM’s concerns are translated into appropriate Defence policy

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the  “draft agreement”   for a move  by  China  to station  military forces  on the  Solomon Islands   is  “gravely  concerning” .

Foreign Minister  Nanaia Mahuta is  similarly  exercised,  but  whether  Defence  Minister  Peeni Henare feels the  same  concern has  yet  to be  disclosed,  although  Point  of  Order  believes  the issue  may  have been discussed  with Australia’s  Peter Dutton   when Henare visited  Canberra  last week.

Before   his  meeting  with  Henare, Dutton said it  was a  standing agenda  item  “for  all of  us  to be  realistic  about  China’s  footprint, their  exertion,  their  pressure  and the  way  in which  they conduct their  business”.

Whether   the  same  measure of  realism has  developed  in  Wellington is  far  from certain.

While  Australia  is  busy  beefing  up  outlays  on  its  defence systems,  that  is  not  the  case  with the  Ardern government  and  morale  in  NZ defence   forces  is  said to be at a  low  ebb.

What  may  dismay New Zealanders  is  that  any   concern  over  China’s  planning  for  a  military  base  in the  Solomons  will not  be  followed up  by  a  prompt review  of the  state of  NZ’s  own military  capability.

Ardern said New Zealand will not be able to outspend other countries on military defence, but its relationships in the Pacific are longstanding.

“We have to make sure that we are respecting the sovereignty of our neighbours whilst working closely alongside them to make sure our region’s needs are met.”

There was no need for new military arrangements to ensure that needs are met, Ardern  said.

A draft agreement leaked online indicated Solomon Islands would allow Beijing to send military forces there and make regular ship visits.

In saying NZ sees  this as “gravely concerning”, Ardern contended there  was  little need, in  terms of Pacific security, for such a such a presence.

Both Australia and New Zealand had personnel, vessels and a presence there to support the country’s stability. She said that demonstrated there was no need to reach beyond this region for such support.

“So we do see this as gravely concerning,”  she  said  on  Radio NZ’s  Morning  Report.

She said there had been leadership-level talks between New Zealand and Solomon Islands at the end of last year.  At that time there was discussion of China’s presence as the Solomons looked to regain stability after recent disruptions in the country.

“We expressed some concern over the direction of travel that Solomons was taking in terms of their security arrangements with China at that time”.

Ardern said it was vital to recognise these were sovereign nations which were entitled to form their own security arrangements.

“But actually, as a region, and I say as a region, the Pacific island nations in particular actually coming together and asking the question ‘well what gaps are there, what needs are there and how can we support one another to fill those so that we’re not having to look beyond our own Pacific family?'”

Ardern rejected comments from former foreign minister Winston Peters that his successor should have visited Pacific neighbouring countries sooner and more frequently..

She said New Zealand ministers had not visited the Pacific recently because their borders were closed due to Covid.

“Now that we have the opportunity to travel into the Pacific safely and be welcomed, we are doing so.”

Ardern said Peters seemed to be implying that the relationship between Solomon Islands and China was new, but that was not the case.

She said Solomon Islands had switched from a previous relationship they had with Taiwan to a relationship with China in 2019, when Peters was foreign minister, and even then the development had been building for some time.

Ardern said New Zealand would not be able to outspend other countries on military defence, but its relationships in the Pacific were longstanding.

“We have to make sure that we are respecting the sovereignty of our neighbours whilst working closely alongside them to make sure our region’s needs are met.”

There was no need for new military arrangements to ensure that needs were met, Ardern said.

Reports  from Australia  say the  draft  agreement  between China  and the Solomons  sent  shock  waves   through  Canberra, which has  long  been the dominant power in  Melanesia and  sees the  region  as  its  backyard.

“We  would be  concerned  by  any  actions that destabilise  the security  in our  region”, Australia’s  Dept of  Foreign Affairs  said in a  statement.

After riots  in the Solomons in 2021,  more  than 200 peacekeepers from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were deployed to restore calm, and veteran Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare avoided being deposed.

Leaders on the most populous island of Malaita fiercely oppose Sogavare’s decision to recognise Beijing and break ties with Taiwan in 2019.  After the 2021 riots the United States announced it was reopening its embassy in Honiara, which had been closed in 1993.

Earlier this week Australia’s high commissioner in the country Lachie Strahan, met Sogavare and agreed to extend the “Solomons International Assistance Force” — deployed for last year’s riots — until December 2023.

Australia previously led a peacekeeping mission in the Solomons from 2003 to 2017.

They agreed Australia would build a handful of infrastructure projects and provide much-needed budget assistance.

2 thoughts on “Keeping an eye on China and the Solomons – let’s hope the PM’s concerns are translated into appropriate Defence policy

  1. Tell me again why New Zealand and Australia deployed forces to the Solomons which effectively kept Sogavare in power? Were we only doing China’s dirty work for them? And nobody worked that out?

    Liked by 1 person

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