We needed China deal to protect ‘domestic security’, says key Solomon Islands official

The controversial security deal struck between Solomon Islands and China that caught the western world off guard was needed to maintain internal security and help fight climate change, a leading Solomon Islands official has said, defending his country’s right to choose its allies.

Speaking to the Guardian in his first interview since the deal between China and Solomon Islands was leaked, Collin Beck, the permanent secretary of foreign affairs and a senior figure in the Solomons government, also said Australia should question whether it had been “fair” to Solomon Islands in its intense scrutiny of the deal.

Beck, who is believed to have been involved in negotiating the deal with China, presented one of the most comprehensive defences of it from a Solomons’ government official yet, saying the deal was designed to address development needs in the Pacific nation and to address “domestic security threats”.

Beck said Solomon Islands faced domestic challenges, including a population growing at a faster rate than the economy could support. “When we look at the security vulnerability of the country, you know, we have youth population, about 18,000 youth looking for jobs every year.”

Chronic unemployment, as well as frustrations with the policies and leadership of the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, were thought to be behind riots in Honiara last year that left three people dead.

The draft deal, which was leaked in March, allows Solomon Islands to call on China to send “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement” to the country for various reason including “maintaining social order” and “protecting people’s lives and property”. Opposition politicians have raised concerns Solomon Islands could use Chinese armed police and military personnel to quash democratic dissent and hold on to power.

But Beck said these were only measures of last resort. “At all costs, we should never, ever trigger any of the security agreements,” he said.

He reiterated that despite international concerns, Solomon Islands had no intention of allowing China to set up a permanent military presence in the country. “It has nothing to do with the establishment of a military base,” he said.

Concerns were raised after the draft deal contained a provision that allowed China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.

Beck added that focusing on the security deal with China instead of the causes of instability in the country was like focusing on which “fire station” the country was turning to to assist in a disaster rather than looking at the causes of the fire.

“What we should be talking about is actually preventing the fire,” he said. “Security and development are two sides of the same coin. Now we need to address our development agenda … Solomon Islands, first of all, is a small island developing state, its vulnerability to climate change is real.”

In recent years, Solomon Islands has lost five islands to rising sea levels. The islands were all vegetated reef islands of significant size.

“We are basically heading to 2.7 to three degrees [of global heating]. More than three degrees. What does this mean? It basically means the sinking of many of our islands, the impact on the economy, the impact on tourism, the impact on fisheries, etc. So when you look at – even for climate change alone – it needs more partnership, not less partnership.”

Beck also suggested the intense international attention that the deal had provoked was unwarranted.

“No one is actually looking at other treaties that exist in the region. The question is why?” he said.

“We have various alliances that exist within the Pacific, which talk about the Pacific but the Pacific is not in the room,” he said, listing the Quad grouping between the US, Australia, India and Japan, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the US and UK.

“In international relations, one thing that is really important is equality and fairness. So if it is good for others to do it, to guarantee the national security interest, then if we’re doing the same and we’ve been scrutinised the way we are being scrutinised, we really need to step back and say: are [they] being fair with Solomon Islands in Australia?

“I think we’ve taken eyes away from the big picture. So it’s important for us to try to look at the fact that we have always continuously explained that the security arrangements we have with China are similar. We have a security treaty already with Australia. We also have a regional [security] framework … within the Pacific”.

The text of the final deal has not been released despite strong urging from opposition MPs and the media. When pressed on whether the government would make the deal public, Beck said: “It’s actually between two governments, it’s actually between the two states. So if the matter of going public with it, it will be a matter between the two governments to consider.”

He added that the agreement was based on equality, respect for sovereignty and noninterference into the domestic affairs of each of the countries.

“I just want to say that the security cooperation we have with China also respects Solomon Islands’ nuclear-free Pacific.”

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