The deal that shocked the world: inside the China-Solomons security pact

A secret agreement that expands Chinese influence over Solomon Islands has now been signed. How did it come about, and what does it mean for the region?

The rumours started in August.

Chatter surfaced among the political class in Honiara that China and Solomon Islands were negotiating a security agreement which could allow Beijing to send military and police personnel to its new Pacific ally, and base naval vessels on the islands.

If the rumours proved to be true, it would be the first known bilateral security agreement between China and a country in the Pacific, a region that has become the centre of a geopolitical and strategic tug of war between China and the US and Australia in recent years. And if Australia’s gravest fears were realised, such an agreement could also allow China to establish a military base less than 2,000km from its eastern border.

Matthew Wale, the leader of the Solomon Islands opposition, says he first learned of the proposed deal in mid-2021 from a source. He claims the deal was being negotiated by a very small team of elected representatives trusted by the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, but was being kept secret from everyone outside this tight circle including the rest of Sogavare’s cabinet.

China-provided anti-Covid supplies in crates on a runway
Anti-Covid supplies from China which arrived in Solomon Islands February. The island nation is one of China’s newest political allies beginning from 2019. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

“They were concerned and raised it with me and I obviously was extremely concerned,” he says.

In March, these fears proved to be justified when the draft text of the security agreement, granting Chinese military and police significant access to Solomon Islands, was leaked online. The news set off shockwaves that were felt in Canberra, Wellington and Washington.

According to accounts from diplomatic sources, politicians and analysts, the China-Solomons security pact was a deal shrouded in secrecy, which took diplomats and government officials – even from within Solomon Islands – by total surprise, prompting a scramble by western powers to try to block Chinese influence in the region and outrage among Solomon Islanders.

In response to the leak, two delegations were dispatched from Australia to Honiara, and this week two top US officials, including Kurt Campbell, the national security council Indo-Pacific coordinator, will land in the capital.

But the hurried diplomatic overtures proved fruitless. Late on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry announced that the deal had been signed.

Caught ‘off guard’

It was sign of just how closely guarded the deal was that news only emerged publicly seven months after the first rumours began. On 24 March Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, posted a series of tweets that contained photographs of the leaked security agreement, setting off alarm bells across the region.

The draft security cooperation agreement between China and Solomon Islands has been linked on social media and raises a lot of questions (and concerns). (photos of agreement in this and below tweet) 1/6

— Dr Anna Powles (@AnnaPowles) March 24, 2022

“I really weighed it up quite heavily about whether or not to put it on to Twitter,” said Powles. “Given the secrecy around the document and the contents of the agreement, I was certainly pleased that some light was going to be shone on it.”

“It’s confirmation of what Canberra and Wellington have long suspected,” said Powles.

But the deal was news to many, reportedly including key government officials from within Sogavare’s government.

The Guardian is aware of at least one senior Solomon Islands diplomat who learned of the deal’s existence from Powles’ post and urgently rushed to have someone text him a link to it.

Christian Mesepitu, the premier of Western Province, said the premiers had likewise not been consulted. “Like many other Solomon Islanders, we were only made aware of the security arrangement on social media, and we are indeed very concerned,” he told Solomon Business magazine.

In the days after the leak, New Zealand’s defence minister, Peeni Henare, said he and the Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, had been caught “off guard” by the draft deal.

“We were both surprised, because the intelligence we were getting didn’t exactly match that,” Henare told Stuff. “We knew that there were some challenges there, with respect to China, but the leaked draft agreement … it did catch me as a surprise, and even minister Dutton.”

James Batley, the former Australian high commissioner to Solomon Islands, says the secrecy around the deal was to be expected. “The Solomon Islands government would be aware of the sort of reaction this would’ve caused in Australia, New Zealand, the US etc, so I think the idea would’ve been: let’s complete this before it becomes public.

“The idea that Solomons could be surprised by [the] reactions of countries like Australia to this beggars belief. They have very experienced people working there.”

But Wale claims that Australia should not have been shocked by the news when it leaked. He says he tried to raise the alarm, telling Australia’s high commissioner to Solomon Islands, Dr Lachlan Strahan, about the deal in August or September 2021. He said Strahan “took note of it and that’s the last I heard”.

Some experts doubt much negotiation between Honiara (pictured) and Beijing took place regarding the security agreement. Photograph: Zahiyd Namo/The Guardian

The Australian department of foreign affairs disputes this, with a spokesperson saying “The Australian high commissioner to Solomon Islands met with opposition leader Wale in May 2021, not August 2021. Opposition leader Wale and officials did not discuss a possible security agreement with China during this meeting or any other.”

Announcing the signing of the deal in parliament, Sogavare said: “Let me assure the people that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open guided by our national interests.”

However, Batley doubts that much negotiation actually took place between Beijing and Honiara.

“The text looks like it was drafted in Beijing and presented to Solomon Islands,” he said. “I think the initiative would’ve come from Beijing. I don’t think Solomon Islands went to China and said: ‘please can we have a security agreement?’

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of negotiation around it to be honest. I think the language that is used is very much in China’s interest and not in Solomon Islands’ interest. If the initiative had come from Solomon Islands you’d expect it to be modelled on agreements that already exist between Solomon Islands and Australia and New Zealand.”


A Chinese naval base?

Australia, New Zealand and the US are particularly concerned that the deal could allow China to establish a military base just 2,000km from Australia’s east coast, with the draft text permitting China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.

“It’s the biggest concern of this deal for Australia,” said Batley. “This expression ‘naval base’, it stands for a broader set of strategic anxieties. For Australia, it’s potentially a strategic nightmare, but it’s equally … of concern to other Pacific Islands as well for the same reason.”

Since the draft deal leaked, Sogavare has sought to allay concerns by saying his country has no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base and has fiercely defended his country’s right to make its own foreign policy decisions, adding it was “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.

A senior Chinese official told the Guardian: “We are not interested in building a naval base here in Solomon Islands.”

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, appeared convinced on Wednesday, saying Sogavare had “made it very clear that they are not accepting of any [military] base in the Solomon Islands. They are not.”

However, his own deputy broke ranks to contradict him and warn that the deal could mean that the Solomons could turn into “our own little Cuba”. Barnaby Joyce said: “China is able, if they follow through, to set up a military base there.”


Those fears are backed up by a reportedly leaked letter published on on 7 April that raised concerns that China might have found a site for a potential base on Isabel Province. The letter, said to be from the president of Avic International Project Engineering Company – a Chinese state-owned company – to Isabel Province’s former governor said the company had “intent to study the opportunity to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’s Liberation Navy, for the [Isabel] Province with exclusive rights for 75 years.”

The new premier of Isabel Province, Rhoda Sikilabu, said she had doubts about the letter provided to “I truly believe that this letter has been created by some people with negative intentions, because I do not believe the previous executive would be involved in such deals. And I personally do not think a naval base will be built anywhere in the country.”

‘Sovereignty undermined’

For Solomon Islanders, concerns about a naval base are secondary.

“From a Solomon Islander point of view, the concern is very much about sovereignty being undermined,” said Batley, “and potentially their country being a focus of much greater geostrategic competition. And not to mention the way this might contribute to general social unrest, contribute to mistrust of government, cynicism of politicians and so on.”

Georgina Lepping, a young Solomon Islander film-maker and campaigner, said there were fears among young people in the country that the deal could allow the government to call in the Chinese military for political purposes such as crushing protests.

“Since the security deal with China made headlines, all over social media, especially Facebook, I saw many youths as young as 16 posting status[es] like … ‘This is the government’s own military’,” said Lepping.

Solomon Islands cartoon
A politically cartoon that has been widely shared in Solomon Islands on social media. Photograph: Supplied

A cartoon that has been widely shared in Solomon Islands on social media shows protesters being held back by Xi Jinping in military gear, while Sogavare stands behind Xi calling to the protesters: “He’s protecting you from you”.

Powles says that while the Solomons’ government argues that “this agreement gives them options and it fills a gap … it’s not clear what that gap is.”

“It’s not clear what advantages there are of an agreement like this, other than the fact that it includes some very ambiguous statements around its scope and therefore could potentially be used for … activities other than humanitarian assistance and maintaining public order.”

Chinese embassy in Honiara
A spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs said the purpose of the agreement was to promote ‘social stability’ in Solomon Islands and the wider Asia-Pacific. Photograph: Charley Piringi/AP

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, said the deal rested on the principle of “equality and mutual benefit.”

“The purpose of China-Solomon Islands security cooperation is to promote social stability and long-term stability in Solomon Islands, which is in the common interests of Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region.”

But there are also concerns that the deal could trigger internal unrest in the country, with Wale saying he believed the agreement was “targeted at Malaita”, the most populous province in the country, which did not support the diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China.

“I am very concerned given the situation on Malaita, that Malaitans will see this deal [as] targeted at them. So that is a real threat to the unity of this country and certainly internal stability,” said Wale.

The Guardian attempted to contact Solomon Islands’ foreign affairs permanent secretary, Collin Beck and prime minister Sogavare for comment.


Kate Lyons and Dorothy Wickham in Honiara

The GuardianTramp

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