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From fake rifles to naval bases: thick fog hangs over China’s plans in Solomon Islands

Solomon opposition leaders evoke Biblical characters as deal with Beijing is signed

Police in the Solomon Islands demonstrate how to wield supposed replica weapons sent by China. (Royal Solomon Islands Police Force photo)

Police in the Solomon Islands demonstrate how to wield supposed replica weapons sent by China. (Royal Solomon Islands Police Force photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Police in the Solomon Islands have released photos showing off new ‘replica rifles’ after China reportedly sent the country a secret cache of weapons on a logging vessel earlier this month.

Rampant speculation on Solomon Islands’ social media prompted the country’s police to release the images in an attempt to quell anxiety about the shipment, per an ABC report. Opposition leader Matthew Wale said days earlier that "like St Thomas" (in reference to a biblical figure who sought physical evidence of Christ's resurrection) he needed to "see (the guns) to believe (the police).”

The country’s police force insist the batch China sent only contained replica guns that are being used for training programs with the Chinese police. Yet opposition parliamentarians still question the legality of the shipment and demand to know why they were sent to a private, rather than a public docking facility.

One New Zealand-based academic interviewed by ABC – Dr. Anna Powles – said replicas are just the first step and that China will likely later send in real weapons. Replicas are used to learn how to safely operate the weapons before going on to the real, lethal version, per Powles.

The scandal surrounds a controversial policing agreement between Beijing and Honiara, which Chinese authorities confirmed on Wednesday (March 23) had been officially signed into action last week during a bilateral video meeting. Beijing remains mum on whether the deal is the first step in a larger security partnership that may lead to Chinese military involvement in the country.

Beyond the policing deal though, a draft text of a broader security arrangement was leaked online, which includes measures for Beijing to deploy police, military personnel, and other armed forces to the country “to assist in maintaining social order” among other reasons. Vessels of the People’s Liberation Army navy may also pull in to the islands for logistical purposes or to do repairs.

The prospect of a Chinese naval base in the region is sounding alarm bells in the capitals of New Zealand and Australia. Both countries currently have police forces stationed in the country after riots broke out last November.

New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said that Pacific partners (referring to the Solomon Islands) must be transparent in their actions.

“We would be concerned, clearly, at any military base being established and we would express that to the Solomon Islands government,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Australia’s Channel Nine on Friday (March 25).

“We want peace and stability in the region,” he added. “We don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out in the region.”

Earlier this month Australia announced plans for the biggest peacetime build-up of its military ranks since the Vietnam War, an increase of a third by 2040. The expansion came off the back of another big reveal — plans for a base on Australia’s east coast for its future fleet of nuclear submarines.

Australia’s submarines are currently based in Perth on the continent’s west coast. Having a base on the east coast will give Australia's underwater fleet an alternate route to the South China Sea (instead of having to go through the Indonesian archipelago) and also offers greater access to the South Pacific, where Chinese vessels are operating more frequently, per an Australian Financial Review report.

The prospect of a Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands, a mere 2,000 km northeast of Australia, makes plans for a submarine base on its east coast all the more timely.