China has taken another big step towards building a military base on the Solomon Islands, a country less than 2000km from Australia’s coast.
State-run media in China announced on Wednesday that the nation had expanded military operations in the region.
It comes amid increasingly hostile tensions between China and the West, with the Communist nation asserting ‘sovereignty’ and ‘jurisdiction’ over the international waters of the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan hit back saying its domestic cruise missile could hit Beijing and said it should start preparing for an inevitable conflict.
The Asian superpower has also laid claim to the South China Sea where the strategic Paracel and Spratly Islands are located, with the defense minister saying this week China is prepared to ‘fight at all costs’ for the territory.
Australian Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis warned the expansion to the Solomon Islands was China’s next step in asserting its presence in the Pacific.
Under new trial guidelines from Chinese President Xi Jinping, effective from Wednesday, ‘armed forces operations’ are to be expanded in a non-warfare capacity.
China claimed the new guidelines were directed at peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian efforts.
The China-Solomon Islands security pact could see Chinese military ships dock on Australia’s doorstep (pictured: The guided-missile frigate Nantong of the escort taskforce leaves a military port in Zhoushan, China in May)
But Mr Davis said the announcement would allow for an increased military presence outside of Chinese waters under the guise of providing aid to other countries.
‘China is laying the groundwork for a military base in the Solomon Islands… something it could establish quite quickly,’ Mr Davis told 9News.
The Solomon Islands and China recently signed a security pact that would see troops from the communist superpower deployed in the Pacific nation in a peacekeeping role.
The agreement also included provisions that Chinese ships can dock and refuel in the Solomon Islands and that China could take an active role in regional instabilities and securing shipping routes.
Critics have claimed a military base could be secretly built piece by piece – first with troops, then small ships, larger ships, and infrastructure – and that this was China’s underlying intention.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong will visit the Solomon Islands on Friday, her third Pacific trip since being sworn in last month.
She previously called the Solomon Islands-China security pact the Australian government ‘biggest foreign policy failure since WWII’.
Senator Wong said her trip to New Zealand and the Solomons will strengthen Australia’s ‘close friendships and cooperation in our region’.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong, right, poses for a photo with Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa in Apia, Samoa on June 2. Ms Wong has also met with Cook Islands leaders
The foreign minister will meet with her New Zealand counterpart Nanaia Mahuta, where regional security will be discussed alongside the country’s First Nations foreign policy experience.
‘Our countries are tied together by the deepest bonds of friendship, shared values, history and sacrifice,’ Senator Wong said.
‘As part of our discussions, we will consider ways we can work together, to make the most of the new energy and resources the Australian government is bringing to the Pacific.’
Senator Wong will then meet with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and a number of his cabinet ministers on Friday.
‘We are committed to deepening our cooperation with Solomon Islands, as we work together to face shared challenges and achieve our shared goals, including on climate change,’ she said.
‘I look forward to discussing the ways we can continue to make progress on pandemic recovery, economic development and labor mobility priorities, and addressing our shared security interests.’
The regional agreement has raised concerns among Australia and its allies, which argues regional security should remain in the remit of the ‘Pacific family’.
The trip also comes ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum in mid-July, when the regional security agreement is due to be discussed, with nations like Fiji pushing for regional consensus.
China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands could see military bases built by Beijing within 2,000km of Australia
New Zealand is working towards a maritime security plan with the Solomons following its security agreement with China.
New Zealand Defense Minister Peeni Henare met with Solomon Islands National Security Minister Anthony Veke at the Shangri La security dialogue held in Singapore over the weekend.
Indo-Pacific security remained a key focus on the dialogue with United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressing the conference about US Indo-Pacific defense policy, while China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe spoke about Beijing’s vision for the Asia-Pacific.
Mr Henare told media outlet Newsroom that maritime security was the top priority for the Solomons delegation.
‘That’s what was the number one theme in our conversation, so I said,’ Okay, how do we help? ‘, And that was the creation of the work plan I just described,’ Mr Henare is quoted as saying.
‘We went in making sure that they (China) knew our stance on making the Pacific safe, secure, and supporting the independence of those sovereign nations in the Pacific and I made that point very clear on a number of occasions.’