Australia’s prime minister said on Monday he was aware of China’s ambitions in the southwest Pacific after a newspaper reported plans by Beijing to build wharves, shipyards, and underwater cables in the Solomon Islands.
The Australian newspaper published a leaked four-page draft maritime cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands dated this year. That follows the recent confirmation by China and the Pacific island nation that they have signed a separate security agreement that the United States and its allies fear could lead to a Chinese naval base less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the Australian coast.
Security experts suspect that maritime infrastructure built under the latest draft memorandum of understanding would be used by the Chinese military.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government was not surprised by the reported draft agreement to develop “port wharves, submarine optical cable construction, shipbuilding and ship repair.”
“We’re very aware of what the Chinese government’s ambitions are in the Pacific, whether it be in relation to facilities such as that or naval bases or other presence of their military in the Pacific,” Morrison told reporters.
“I am very concerned, as many other Pacific leaders are, about the interference and intrusion of the Chinese government into these types of arrangements and what that can mean for the peace, stability and security of the southwest Pacific,” Morrison added.
Solomon Islands opposition lawmaker Peter Kenilorea Jr. said his father, Peter Kenilorea, the independent country’s first prime minister from 1978 until 1981, would be “upset” by current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s use of China to “leverage” more from other countries.
“The Solomon Islands is never going to become part of that kind of diplomacy,” Kenilorea told Australia’s Ten Network television.
“We have cordial relations with our friends. They know our needs and we work through them rather than using each other as leverage against each other,” he added.
The United States has said it would take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands should the security agreement with China pose a threat to U.S. or allied interests.
Australia has a security pact with the Solomon Islands and sent a peacekeeping police force to the capital, Honiara, in November after civil unrest.
Sogavare has maintained that there will be no Chinese military base in his country and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the islands.
A draft of the security pact, which was leaked online, said Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment and China could send police and armed forces there “to assist in maintaining social order.” The Solomon Islands and China have not released the final version of the agreement.