Solomon Islands-China security agreement: Jacinda Ardern calls warships deal 'gravely concerning', could lead to region's militarisation

A draft security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China is "gravely concerning" and could lead to the unnecessary militarisation of the Pacific, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

The document, initially leaked on social media last week and later confirmed by the Solomons, would allow China to station warships in the Pacific region.

The agreement has not yet been signed off by the country's cabinet - and officials there have stressed it is a draft - but it's caused alarm within Australia and New Zealand.

"We see such acts as the militarisation of the region," Prime Minister Ardern told RNZ on Monday morning. "Also, see very little reason in terms of the Pacific's security for such a need and such a presence."

Since the document has emerged publicly, Australia and New Zealand have noted that other Pacific nations can assist with security and highlighted recent examples of that. 

New Zealand sent defence and police personnel to the Solomon Islands after riots in Honiara at the end of 2021. That unrest was partly caused by the Solomons withdrawing recognition of Taiwan in 2019 and establishing relations with Beijing as well as domestic issues.

"If you look at the example of the recent unrest the Solomon Islands has experienced, there is an example of where Australia and New Zealand combined had personnel, vessels and a presence there to support the stability in-country, demonstrating the need to reach beyond our own region for such support just wasn't there. We do see this as gravely concerning."

The largest aid spent on education in the Solomons comes from New Zealand, the Prime Minister said.

"We are members of the Pacific and I would like to think that we have a good understanding of the challenges our regions face. We have relationships that run deep because we, of course, are the home to many of our Pacific neighbours' people," she said.

"We have to make sure that we are respecting the sovereignty of our neighbours whilst working closely alongside them to make sure our regions needs are met and we don't see the need for anyone to consider, for instance, new military arrangements in order to meet, for instance, security needs."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Ardern said there was contact at the end of last year between New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, including between herself and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. 

"Even then there was talk of China's presence as [the Solomon Islands was] looking to regain stability after some significant disruption in-country. We expressed concern over the direction of travel that Solomons was taking in terms of their security arrangements with China," Ardern said.

"I think it's very much a matter of us recognising, look, these are sovereign nations, who are of course absolutely entitled to pursue their own security arrangements, but actually as a region, and I say, as a region, the Pacific Island nations in particular coming together and actually asking the question, 'well, what gaps are there? What needs are there? How can we support one another to fill those so that we're not having to look beyond their own Pacific family?'."

The Prime Minister pushed back against remarks from her former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who on Monday suggested the current Government had neglected the Pacific by not sending Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta to any island nations sooner. 

Ardern said New Zealand has been respecting countries' COVID-19 border closures and that developments between the Solomon Islands and China are not new. She pointed out that Peters, the New Zealand First leader who is currently out of Parliament, was Foreign Affairs Minister in 2019 when the Solomons changed its relationship with Taiwan and China. 

Mahuta is travelling to Fiji on Monday to engage "on key issues facing our region". She will meet with the country's Prime Minister and attend a Pacific Islands Forum event. 

"This visit will allow me to discuss and strengthen further opportunities for Aotearoa New Zealand to work alongside Fiji - and their government, leadership and stakeholders - to deliver long-term resilience for our region."

Last week, Mahuta said if the draft agreement between the Solomons and China was genuine, it would be "very concerning"

"Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, however developments within this purported agreement could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region's security. This would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbours."

New Zealand's High Commissioner in Honiara was raising concerns with the local government, Mahuta said at the time, and New Zealand also would speak directly with China. 

In a statement last Friday, the Solomon Islands said it was "working to broaden its security and development cooperation with more countries" and that it was its responsibility to protect its people.

A Defence Assessment released by New Zealand in December reported that China is the globe's "major driver of geopolitical change".

"In 2019, China publicly announced its intention to increase its military cooperation in the Pacific, as part of its plan for an enhanced global military footprint," the report said.

"China views an increased presence in the Pacific as part of its natural progression towards its global goals, but there are also more specific reasons for Beijing's interest, spanning geopolitical, strategic and economic drivers."