Why did China sign a security pact with the Solomon Islands?

There are warnings that China could set up a military base in the Solomon Islands within weeks after the two countries signed a historic security agreement.

The Solomon Islands lie more than 6000km from China’s mainland, but less than 2000km from Australia’s east coast.

Because of this, Labor has branded the Sino-Solomon security pact Australia’s worst foreign policy failure since World War II.

Both China and the Solomons have denied there are plans for China to build a military base, Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says he does not believe them.

“When you read the deal, it explicitly states that China will establish a facility ashore to support visits by Chinese naval vessels and coastguard vessels.

“That facility will be manned by Chinese personnel including Chinese army personnel. The base itself, the port, would need to be supported from China via Chinese transport aircraft on a regular basis.

“There’s an old saying of, ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck”.

What is China’s goal?
Davis said he believes China’s goal for the agreement is to “extend its presence into the southwest Pacific to create a bubble of influence”.

He said the move could also cut off Australia’s sea lanes of communication with the US.

“Thirdly, it seeks to be able to have a presence whereby it can monitor an act in the Coral Sea and project power close to Australia’s eastern seaboard,” he said.

What is Australia’s best strategy?
Davis said Australia should continue to strengthen its alliance with the US and also strengthen its own defence capabilities in the next term of government.

Earlier this week, Scott Morrison said diplomacy in the region could not be heavy-handed or impinge on the sovereignty of the nation.

“I’m very conscious of how visits are perceived within the Pacific. This was the right, calibrated way to address this issue with the (Solomon Islands) prime minister,” he said.

“One of the things you don’t do in the Pacific is you don’t throw your weight around. They’re a sovereign country and we have to respect their sovereignty.”

Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong says a Chinese security agreement with a nation 1600km from Cairns has made the region less secure under Morrison’s watch.

“The government should have acted sooner. What this deal signifies is that Australia is no longer for the Solomon Islands a nation to whom they turn to meet their challenges in every instance,” Senator Wong said.

But Morrison says “you can’t always be fully persuasive on these issues”, outlining his respect for the nation’s sovereignty.

“Now with this arrangement, we need to ensure we work with them to see that Australia’s interests aren’t compromised … (and) that their strength and their sovereignty is not compromised by these types of arrangements.”

Morrison said the Solomon Islands government had stated it would not allow any Chinese naval bases.

But Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce didn’t rule out the possibility of a Chinese base in the Solomons.

“(It’s) dual-purpose, which means China is able, if they follow through, to set up a military base there.

“That’s a very bad day for Australia. We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast.”

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop also didn’t rule out the presence of a military base given the details of the final agreement hadn’t been made public.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne says Australia remains concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the agreement.