Leaked document shows China's plans in Solomon Islands: 'Unsettling'

Leaked documents reveal a 2019 plan between a Chinese aviation company and the Solomon Islands, and one experts believes there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the exposed deal.

The memorandum of understanding [MOU] was published by the ABC on Friday and it details the plan brokered between AVIC Commercial Aircraft and the Solomon Islands.

The deal would see several airstrips in the Solomon Islands be upgraded and the nation would purchase aircraft from the company, which has ties to the Chinese military.

The MOU states the Solomon Islands wished to have a direct flight to China, hence the need for refurbished airfields and new planes.

However, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National University, John Blaxland warns it is "naive to the extreme" to believe this deal was simply for commercial gain.

In this handout provided by the Australian Department of Defence, A Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft, prepares to land at Honiara International Airport on November 30, 2021 in Honiara, Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands.
A leaked document shows a deal between the Solomon Islands and a Chinese aviation company. Source: Australian Department of Defence via Getty Images

"Everything in China for state-owned enterprises is about the pursuit of political objectives," Professor Blaxland told Yahoo News Australia.

"So there'll be a spin to this, most likely was to the islands in the South China Sea that were built, purportedly for tourism, that are now bristling with military weapons systems.

"So you know, let's not kid ourselves about what's at stake here."

Prof Blaxland said the Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was playing a game with China behind both Australia's back and the people of the Solomon Islands.

He said this was likely done to ensure a deal with China and ensure Mr Sogavare remains in power.

While the MOU was concerning, "thankfully" the deal hasn't progressed too far just yet, Prof Blaxland said.

Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, pictured here with China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming, has gone behind Australia's back. Source: Getty Images
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, pictured here with China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming, has gone behind Australia's back. Source: Getty Images

China's interest is 'geostrategic'

During World War II, the geostrategic significance of the Solomon Islands was established when Japan fought against the US Navy and US Marine at Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomons, Prof Blaxland explained.

While no one is expecting another World War, he said the "significance of the real estate is undiminished", similarly to Kiribati.

"The interest of China in this is economic, but it is also geostrategic, and we should be looking back and we shouldn't just watch this happen," Prof Blaxland said.

"We need to engage. We are engaged on a range of fronts already, but we need to do more and we need to engage with civil society in these places as well."

Prof Blaxland said Australia has a very important part to play in the Pacific region.

While saying there are legitimate criticisms of how Australia has engaged with the region in the past, "by and large" Australia has been a "benevolent actor" in the Pacific.

He also noted Australia isn't some sort of "cowboy state" that will intervene by invading.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) is seen with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (right) after arriving at Honiara International Airport, in the Solomon Islands in 2019
Australia plays a pivitol role in the Solomon Islands, Professor John Blaxland said and the deal is "unsettling". Source: AAP

People who believe China is doing this out of generosity are "just letting themselves on", Prof Blaxland said.

"China is doing this with its own interests in mind," he said.

"It is an authoritarian state that throws its weight around that is building a military greater than anyone other than the United States."

The development of the unearthed MOU is unsettling for not only Australia but Prof Blaxland imagines it is also deeply unsettling for most people in the Solomon Islands.

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