Solomon Islands-China security deal needs scrutiny: Mahuta

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says the new Solomon Islands security arrangement with China is unwelcome and unnecessary and should be open to regional scrutiny.

New Zealand and Australia have reacted with frustration to the news Solomon Islands politicians have signed a security agreement with China.

The possibility such a deal could be struck had prompted concerns - shared by the United States, that it could provide for China to establish a military base in the Pacific.

A draft of the deal's text was leaked last month, but the final version that was agreed has not been released.

Mahuta said she was saddened the Solomon Islands chose to pursue a security agreement outside the region.

New Zealand has called for the issue to be a top priority for discussion at the next meeting of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, which is scheduled for June. "And I understand a number of other countries have called for that," Mahuta told Morning Report.

"That's the challenge ... bringing this issue into the regional conversation ... around these terms and conditions between China and Solomon Islands."

"Nobody's seen the exact terms and conditions of the agreement, not the whole of the parliament of the Solomons, certainly not the Solomon Island peoples, and not the Pacific Island nations.

The signing of the pact and so-far non-disclosure of its terms is part of a political dispute within the Solomon Islands, but its significance is much wider for the Pacific, Mahuta said.

"I have concerns ... to ensure that this is fully discussed because of the regional implications - that this has not been given priority, certainly by the Solomon Islands. They have given assurances [about the content], we have to take them at their word, respecting their sovereignty.

"However, regional security issues are a matter for a broader forum. We see the Pacific Islands Forum as the best place to bring those issues together so that we can get greater transparency and discuss these."

New Zealand had not yet formally requested the content of the agreement from either China or the Solomon Islands, but: "There has been high level engagement at an officials level, and certainly between ambassadors both in China and in Honiara", Mahuta said.

"The whole of the Pacific want to discuss this issue because no-one's got a lot of visibility on the terms and conditions of the arrangement.

"It's going to be a matter of trying to bring the Solomons into a conversation, rather than the Solomons feeling like they're defending their sovereignty and their being outcast by the rest of the Pacific."

Australian leader of the opposition in the senate Penny Wong has accused the Australian government of dropping the ball on their interactions with Solomon Islands before the deal was signed, and allowing what she called the country's biggest foreign affairs failure in 80 years.

Does Mahuta admit to any failure by New Zealand in not succeeding in persuading the Solomon Islands not to go ahead with the deal?

"No," Mahuta said: "New Zealand's upheld it's part of an agreement for the region."

That agreement is The Biketawa Declaration, which was set up by Pacific Islands Forum countries in 2000, and outlines how the parties to it will respond to a regional crisis.

It has previously been invoked to assist Solomon Islands with unrest inside the country, with New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji sending assistance in an operation that wound up in 2017. It was also invoked in response to the Tonga eruption earlier this year.

"We are the closest neighbours, we can respond," Mahuta said.

Both China and Solomon Islands have dismissed fears a Chinese military base could be established in the Solomon Islands. But if this did happen, or if Chinese military personnel had a presence in the Solomon Islands, would that constitute a "diplomatic red line" for New Zealand?

"Both China and the Solomons have been at pains on this recent signing to say that that is not the case," Mahuta said.

"New Zealand by extension has said well, then we need to discuss these issues as a part of the Pacific Islands Forum, so all Pacific nations have the ability to hold those statements to account, but also to investigate the terms and conditions of the arrangement."

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