The shock over the security deal between China and the Solomon Islands is proof of a “relationship failure”, the New Zealand foreign minister said, confirming that the pact took New Zealand, l Australia and other Pacific countries completely by surprise.
The deal marks Beijing’s first known bilateral security deal in the Pacific. The text of the final deal is secret, but a draft leaked on social media in March granted China’s military and police extensive access to the country, allowing China to “visit ships, carry out a logistics resupply and make a stopover and transition in”. Solomon Islands”.
While there had been some awareness of Beijing’s overtures to the Solomons over policing, the scope of the deal surprised officials in Australia, Aotearoa in New Zealand and across the Pacific.
Speaking on Monday, Nanaia Mahuta told the Guardian that New Zealand’s first knowledge of the deal dates back to a draft leaked online in late March, bolstering statements by Defense Minister Peeni Henare, according to which he had surprised Australia and New Zealand. guard.
“As to the details of any security agreement, it would be fair to say that probably very few Pacific countries, including New Zealand, will have been aware of the details of these discussions – or, indeed, in how far those talks had progressed to something material,” Mahuta said. She condemned the deal as “unwelcome and unnecessary”, and said in March that it “could destabilize the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned security in the Pacific region”.
On whether the two countries were surprised by specific details of the deal, or by its very existence, the minister replied: “Both.”
However, Australian politicians were wary about whether the draft deal was a surprise. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Pacific Minister Zed Seselja both confirmed they were unaware of the deal until it was leaked online in late March, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to answer questions about what he knew, or when. Behind the scenes, Australian officials informed some media that Australian intelligence was aware of the deal and was pushing for it to be disclosed.
“I would say it’s a relationship failure,” Mahuta said when asked if the shock leak represented an intelligence failure for Australia and New Zealand. “That is why it is so important for the Solomons to provide a level of transparency – to ensure that we can elevate the conversations around the impact of these arrangements around regional security and regional sovereignty at the Forum of Pacific Islands.”
However, much of the blame for the broken relationship lies with the Solomon government and, by extension, its prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, she suggested.
“It would be good manners and good protocol to allow your neighbors to have a greater awareness and understanding of your regional security concerns before entering into relations outside the region,” he said. she declared. “While we respect the sovereignty of the Solomons and any Pacific nation, we also respect our contribution to supporting and strengthening Pacific cohesion.”
Mahuta added that it was “a very New Zealand-centric view of where the relationship breakdown happened… I don’t want to confuse New Zealand’s position with that from Australia – we are self-sufficient in how we work with our Pacific neighbours.
The deal raised immediate concerns from New Zealand, Australia and the US over the prospect of building a Chinese military base in the Solomons – and the wider Pacific. , that the region could become a chessboard for geopolitical powers.
Australia called the prospect of a military base a “red line” and the United States said it would “take action” in response to any base construction. Within the Solomons, Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, argued that this would “turn the Solomons into a geopolitical playground” and “further threaten the fragile unity of the nation”.
Mahuta, however, said heated talks about a possible military base were of no use. “We have to take this one step at a time,” she said. “The first conversation should be to understand the nature of the arrangements – because if we jump too quickly to a set of assumptions that are unconfirmed…it won’t be helpful for the type of conversation that New Zealand thinks benefit the region.”
She said New Zealand must “take at face value” Solomon Islands’ assurances that a naval base would not go ahead. “We would be deeply concerned if the nature of these arrangements led to the militarization of the Solomon Islands,” she said. “We take it literally… [the assurance] that these arrangements will not lead to the militarization of a base in Honiara… [although] it would be nice to have something written down.
In the Solomons, the deal raised fears that Chinese forces could be used by authorities to crush dissent and protests. A cartoon widely circulated in the Solomon Islands on social media shows protesters surrounded by an armed Xi Jinping in military gear, while Sogavare stands behind Xi saying, “He’s protecting you from you.”
Mahuta tacitly acknowledged these concerns, saying that previous New Zealand aid during times of trouble had been designed to help the population at large, rather than to benefit political elites.
“New Zealand… when we respond to unrest issues, like in the Solomons, our response is to all people in the Solomons, not just certain people. So again, it was a curious set of arrangements from our perspective,” she said.
Even as the security deal continues to grab headlines, Mahuta said the biggest threats to the Pacific and its security are climate change and the economic impact of Covid. Last week, the group Pacific Elders’ Voice, which includes former leaders from the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu, released a statement saying it was climate change, not military bases, that needed the most urgent attention.
“The big conversation for the Pacific is not necessarily a security conversation, but an economic conversation because the Pacific’s level of economic vulnerability has only been made worse by Covid and will continue to be made worse by climate change,” Mahuta said.
“It’s not just security issues that create instability. It is in fact economic fragility. This is a challenge for the Pacific that needs to be discussed.