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Australian Army Pvt. Nicholas Funch-Thomsen, Australian Federal Police Constable Dylan Gloury and an officer from the Royal Solomon Island Police Force talk during a patrol at the Port of Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Dec. 15, 2021.

Australian Army Pvt. Nicholas Funch-Thomsen, Australian Federal Police Constable Dylan Gloury and an officer from the Royal Solomon Island Police Force talk during a patrol at the Port of Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Dec. 15, 2021. (Brandon Grey/Australian Defence Force)

Great power competition in the Western Pacific is likely to intensify following the appearance of Chinese plans for a military presence in the Solomon Islands, according to security experts.

Leaders in Australia and New Zealand reacted with alarm this week after opponents of a security agreement between China and the Solomons leaked a draft of the agreement online, according to the New York Times on Thursday. Officials worry that it could allow China to base warships 1,200 miles off Australia’s east coast.

For years, rumors circulated about Chinese efforts to establish a military presence throughout the South Pacific, according to David Capie, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Wellington, New Zealand.

Vanuatu, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Samoa have been rumored as potential sites for future Chinese military facilities, he told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday.

“This is the first time we have something on paper,” he said. “It’s concerning that this is an explicit example of China wanting a bigger presence in the Southwest Pacific.”

Guadalcanal, the Solomons’ main island, was the site of the first major U.S. ground offensive against the Japanese empire in World War II.

Between Aug 7, 1942, and Feb 9, 1943, air, land and sea battles there claimed the lives of about 30,000 Japanese and 7,000 U.S. and Allied troops along with two U.S. aircraft carriers, numerous other ships and hundreds of aircraft before Japanese forces evacuated.

The leaked Solomons security agreement would facilitate the first non-western military presence in the region since Japanese occupation during World War II, Paul Buchanan, an American security expert based in Auckland, New Zealand, told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday.

“This is a golden opportunity for [China] to project power into Melanesia and beyond,” he said. “What we are looking at is great power rivalry coming home to roost in Melanesia.”

Chinese police are already in the Solomons, training locals on riot control and personal protection, Buchanan said.

“The fact that the Chinese are able to secure a deal, at least in principle, shows you that years of neglect on the part of traditional allies have given China room to maneuver,” he said.

A base in the Solomons would allow China to monitor relatively shallow shipping lanes between Australia and Southeast Asia, he said.

The waters would be transited by nuclear submarines that Australia is acquiring under last year’s AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., he said.

Seas around the Solomons are also transited by U.S. Navy ships headed Down Under, with Australia likely to host a reactivated U.S. 1st Fleet, Buchanan said.

China isn’t likely to stop at a base in the Solomons, he said, noting that a Chinese navy hospital ship is a regular visitor to Fiji.

Defense officials in the U.S. have planned for Chinese efforts to build a blue water navy equipped with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, he said.

To that end America has stationed Marines in Australia’s Northern Territory and is providing Australia with top-shelf weapons such as F-35 stealth fighters and nuclear submarines, Buchanan said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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