One of China’s biggest defence and aerospace companies had big plans for the Solomon Islands, a new leaked document reveals.
The Solomon Islands reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a Chinese company to transform the country into an “aeronautical hub” for the region more than two years ago.
The document, signed in China in November 2019, would have seen one of China’s largest defence and aerospace companies AVIC Commercial Aircraft upgrade almost three dozen airstrips in the Solomon Islands.
“Solomon [Islands] wishes to be part of the regional airline concept where Honiara would receive direct flights from China and become a regional hub,” according to the MOU, obtained by the ABC.
In return, the Solomon Islands government would buy six aircraft from AVIC, with the sale depending on “further negotiations on price and concessional terms”.
While there seemed to be a “great deal of urgency in the [aviation] agreement … far more urgency than you find in many MOUs between China and the Pacific”, according to Australian National University’s Graeme Smith, no further action appears to have been taken.
The agreement was signed just a few months after the Solomon Islands ended its 36-year relationship with Taiwan, and officially recognised Beijing.
Dr Smith told the ABC he believed the agreement was likely stalled by the Covid pandemic, which impacted international travel.
He said it was also worth noting that AVIC’s commercial arm was linked with the Chinese military and might have an interest in checking out airfields and other facilities in the country.
“Defence planners (in Australia) might be somewhat concerned at the involvement of this company,” he said.
There may be concern about information being conveyed back to the Chinese military but Dr Smith said this was getting into the realm of speculation.
“Is this company going to build a base in Solomon Islands? Probably not, it’s not really what they do. But certainly, they have extremely strong ties to the Chinese military.”
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News of the agreement comes after a draft deal was leaked about a security pact signed between Solomon Islands and China, raising fears China could establish a military presence on Australia’s doorstep.
Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale said he warned Australian officials as early as August last year that China was negotiating a military pact that could see a Chinese naval base established in the strategically located Pacific nation, less than 2000km from Australia’s shoreline.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has defended the deal, saying the country had no intention of “pitching into any geopolitical power struggle”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said any attempt by China to build a naval base on the Solomons would cross a “red line” for Australia and the United States.
“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” Mr Morrison said on Sunday, without elaborating on how he would respond if China built one.
China’s moves to broaden its influence without crossing the threshold into war has been described as a “grey zone operation”.
“It’s not a hot war where there’s weapons involved, [and] it’s not a cold war where we’re facing each other down over a table. It’s something different again,” former editor of Australian Defence Magazine Katherine Ziesing told ABC RN’s Patricia Karvelas.
“So it’s non-kinetic effects and we’re shaping the strategic environment for what we think the next conflict will look like.
“That’s the hard and soft power that China has been building in our region, and that they’ve been doing incredibly well for many years now.”
She believes Australia’s mistake is not seeing China’s actions as an integrated campaign the country needs to fight.
“I think that will be our downfall,” Ziesing said.
“We simply just do not have the united front that China has when it comes to marshalling all of our levers that we could possibly pull.”