China, Solomon Islands security agreement: Jacinda Ardern says 'no need' for deal, expresses concern about 'militarisation' of Pacific

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says there is "no need" for the China-Solomon Islands security cooperation agreement as countries in the Pacific are "ready and available to meet the security needs of our neighbours".

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, says she's "saddened" the Solomons have chosen to pursue a deal with a country outside of the region given Pacific nations already have a commitment to support each other.

It comes after New Zealand officials met with representatives from Australia, Japan and the United States in Hawaii to discuss the agreement's "serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific".

China on Tuesday night announced the security cooperation agreement had been signed with the Solomon Islands. No specific details have been revealed about the deal, but a draft version leaked in March sparked fears a Chinese naval base could be established in the Solomons. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare later said that wasn't the intention. 

Speaking from Singapore on Wednesday, Ardern reacted to the signing by saying the cooperation deal was something that "has been building for some time".

"[We] have continued to reiterate with the Solomons and China our view, alongside the Pacific, that collectively we are ready and available to meet the security needs of our neighbours," she said.

"We see no need for this agreement. We are concerned about the militarisation of the Pacific and we continue to call on the Solomons to work with the Pacific with any concerns around their security that they may have."

Ardern said the Pacific Islands Forum, of which both New Zealand and the Solomon Islands are members, has the Biketawa Declaration, a framework for coordinating responses to regional security needs. 

"It only reinforces for us the long-held view by New Zealand in our foreign policy that we must maintain strong relationships in our region. But we must maintain those strong relationships within our Pacific region," Ardern said.

"We have been a part of conversations with the Pacific Island Forum where increasingly you do see the desire of the forum for us to work collaboratively, for us to respond to our own needs within the region.

"That is why we have called so strongly for the Pacific to be involved in the dialogue around any new security arrangements when actually we have got the willingness and the ability to meet those needs ourselves."

Jacinda Ardern arrived in Singapore earlier this week.
Jacinda Ardern arrived in Singapore earlier this week. Photo credit: Newshub.

New Zealand and Australia deployed defence and police personnel to Honiara during unrest in late 2021. Those hostilities were partly caused by the Solomon Islands government withdrawing recognition of Taiwan in 2019 and establishing relations with Beijing. New Zealand in March extended that deployment, which will be reviewed again on May 31.

Mahuta, the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister, said in a statement to Newshub that the security agreement "is both unwelcome and unnecessary".

"Pacific Islands Forum members have a strong commitment to support each other to meet our broader ambitions for our region's security as set out in the Biketawa Declaration. We have worked very hard together to make sure we are meeting one another's needs – including in defence and security."

As New Zealand has a "long-term security partnership with the Solomon Islands", Mahuta said she was "saddened that [the] Solomon Islands has chosen nonetheless to pursue a security agreement outside the region".

"While such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into, we have made clear to both Solomon Islands and China our grave concerns at the agreement's potential to destabilise the Pacific region's security."

Mahuta said this underscored the importance of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders discussing how to "build our region's resilience to the geopolitical pressures that are impacting us all" at their next meeting.

Since a draft version of the security agreement was leaked in March, there's been a diplomatic effort to get the Solomons to back down. New Zealand expressed concerns directly to both countries, Australia sent a minister to Honiara last week and the US is sending its top Indo-Pacific official there later this week.

Officials from those countries, as well as from Japan, have met in Honolulu to discuss "developments in the Pacific Islands", including maritime security, climate changes and COVID-19. 

"Officials from the four countries represented also shared concerns about a proposed security framework between the Solomon Islands and the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific," a White House statement says.

Ardern said on Wednesday there are a number of countries with interests in the Pacific, including China, and "areas where we can collaborate and work together". 

"But we must also draw clear lines where we have areas of concern and the militarisation of our region is a very clear line."

She will be meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week and "regional issues are always on the agenda".

"We often reflect developments in our region, give and share New Zealand's perspective on those developments and seek the views of others."

Asked whether she should be raising issues about the security deal directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ardern said what's been "said publicly, we've conveyed privately", but "there are some leaders where you simply don't drop a WhatsApp to".

"I would consider President Xi and President Biden to be among those."