NZ shouldn’t Big Brother the Solomons over relations with China

Every now and again there’s a scare story about China trying to establish a military base in the South Pacific.

In 2018 it was Vanuatu’s turn.  Australia’s Fairfax Media reported that China had approached Vanuatu to allow a permanent military presence in the country. Vanuatu flatly denied any such talks.

In 2021 Television New Zealand ran breathless stories about a possible Chinese military base in Kiribati and how it would alter the balance of power in the Pacific.  It transpired that China had merely offered to help rehabilitate an airstrip on Kanton Island.   Kiribati made it clear it that this was a “civilian use only” project.

Now there  is a furore about a possible Chinese “base” in the  Solomons consequential on a  Memorandum of Understanding the Solomons is signing with China.  Despite Solomons prime minister Manasseh Sogavare denying any intention to allow a base, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has expressed “strong condemnation of such agreement” and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it is “gravely concerning”.

Sogavare has rejected the paternalistic commentary of Australia and New Zealand that  somehow the Solomons is in their “backyard” and China should keep out.

Jacinda Ardern said that the MOU could lead to the “militarisation” of the region, which is a fair enough concern.   I would prefer the South Pacific to be a zone of peace,  with lightly armed forces tasked mainly for disaster relief and resource protection.  But if our PM is really against militarisation she should point the finger first at Australia for its planned purchase of several new nuclear powered submarines, some to be based on Australia’s Pacific coast, or the US for expanding its military presence on Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia.  Jacinda could also explain why her own government is spending $2.3 billion on six new P8 surveillance planes, optimized for anti-submarine warfare and armed with missiles.

Now I’d rather not see Chinese warships visiting Honiara, as permitted under the MOU.   Port visits by warships are a strange way of expressing friendship.  Although I should point out that New Zealand has hosted Chinese navy ships in the past, and our navy has docked in Chinese ports, without generating much controversy.

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Solomons/China MOU is the bit authorizing the deployment of Chinese  police to protect property or in a crisis. Now maybe the Chinese cops will be on their best behavior, but I take on board the words of the Solomons Leader of the Opposition, Matthew Wale, that China is not democratic and that this will affect “what [police] training is conducted, how arrests are done, the manner in which courts function, the extent to which individual rights can be expressed, and ultimately, how the rule of law is perceived.”

However, a Western-driven project to “keep China out of our region” is never going to work.  Pacific island nations need all the development aid  they can get and China has the money.  Some Chinese aid will be useful and appropriate and some won’t.  There have been valid criticisms of China concentrating its aid on grander, costly projects that increase an island nation’s debt.  But ultimately it is up to each island nation to determine its relations with China.  Australia and New Zealand berating them is ultimately going to be counter-productive.

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