Pacific Games concern

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China Aid built and funded the new national stadium in Honiara. Picture: ABC NEWS: CHRISNRITA AUMANU-LEONG

Concern is mounting in Canberra after Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced that China is sending additional police to the country to help provide security for the Pacific Games.

The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) on Monday received another donation of police equipment from China’s Ministry of Public Security — including metal detectors, two drones and police uniforms — during a ceremony at its main headquarters in Honiara.

But Mr Sogavare also announced that China’s small police liaison team in Solomon Islands would grow to help provide security for the Pacific Games starting this month.

“Prime Minister Sogavare stated, as part of preparation for the Pacific Games 2023, People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Public Security increased the personnel input of China’s police liaison team as well as conducted comprehensive security training for the RSIPF police officers,” Mr Sogavare’s office said.

The statement does not say how many additional officers had, or would, come into the country, or exactly what role they would play during the Pacific Games, which will run from November 19 to December 2.

The ABC has asked the police minister’s office, the RSIPF and the Chinese embassy in Honiara for more information about the extra Chinese personnel.

Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham said if there was a shortfall in security for the Pacific Games then Solomon Islands should turn to Australia and Pacific Island nations for help, rather than China.

“Solomon Islands has stated, and the Albanese government has repeated, assurances that Australia is the security partner of choice for Solomon Islands,” he said.

“If that’s the case, then we should be there providing that security for those games.”

Senator Birmingham said he was confident that the federal government would have made it clear that Australia would be willing to plug any security gaps for the Games, and suggested Mr Sogavare’s actions might unnerve other Pacific Island leaders.

“I would think that all Pacific Island nations would prefer to see adherence to the principle of Pacific-led solutions to Pacific problems,” he said.

Australian personnel on the ground

Around 5000 athletes from across the region are expected to flock to Solomon Islands for the event, along with thousands of supporters, visitors and spectators. Australia has a sizeable contingent of police and ADF personnel on the ground in Honiara, and has already indicated it will send additional personnel to the capital to help boost security for the Games.

Defence Minister Richard Marles brushed off questions about whether Australia was concerned about the Chinese police in Solomon Islands, emphasising Australia’s existing commitments to provide police support for the event.

“We’ve made clear to Solomon Islands government that we stand ready to support Solomons in its very significant events being the Pacific Games, but also its election next year in terms of the security and policing effort, which needs to occur as part of that,” he said.

But the prospect of a larger Chinese police presence on the island will worry Australian officials and senior police officers, who suspect Beijing is trying to displace Australia as the country’s major security partner.

That suspicion only grew earlier this year after China and Solomon Islands signed a new police agreement, on top of a separate – and deeply contentious – security pact inked in 2022.

The latest police equipment donation from China comes in the wake of Australia’s move to repair and refurbish several key facilities for the RSIPF for the Pacific Games, including the Police Operations Centre and the police traffic centre in Kukum, which was severely damaged during riots
in late 2021.

Both China and Australia have also supplied vehicles and other equipment to the RSIPF, while China donated several dozen ‘replica’ weapons – which diplomats from the US believe were in fact real.

China ties play into domestic politics

Mr Sogavare’s office said during Monday’s ceremony the prime minister “acknowledged (China’s) continuous security generous assistance”, and said Beijing was helping to provide capabilities which would ensure Solomon Islands could meet “changing 21st century policing requirements”.

Mihai Sora from the Lowy Institute said that China had been ‘progressively displacing Australia as a key policing partner for the RSIPF’ since it signed the security and policing agreements with Solomon Islands last year.

“China will seek to maximise the optics of its policing contribution to Solomon Islands during the Pacific Games as it works to establish its credentials as a security partner to Pacific countries,” he said.

“Prime Minister Sogavare also wants to demonstrate the benefits for Solomon Islands of switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019.

“This, and a successful Pacific Games, will be important to him going into an election early next year, as he seeks to neutralise criticisms from the opposition that the switch brought instability to the country.”

A department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson also pointed to Australia’s existing police cooperation with Solomon Islands ahead of the Games and next year’s elections.

“At the request of the Solomon Islands government, Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force personnel are supporting the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to deliver a safe and secure event, working with partners from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand,” they said.

“This is consistent with the Forum- family first approach to regional security that Pacific leaders have agreed.”

  • STEPHEN DZIEDZIC is the ABC’s Foreign Affairs (Asia Pacific) reporter, based in the Parliament House bureau, Canberra. The views expressed in this article
    belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.
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