China’s foreign minister will visit the Solomon Islands this week, a month after signing a security deal with the Pacific nation, as part of a wider tour where China is seeking more deals in the region.
Wang Yi would travel to Honiara with a “delegation of nearly 20 members”, the Solomon Islands government confirmed on Tuesday, calling the trip a “milestone”.
“The highlight of the visit is the signing of a number of key bilateral agreements with the national government,” said Li Ming, Chinese Ambassador to the Solomon Islands.
Among the deals expected to be signed is the controversial security deal between the countries that made headlines in March after a draft was leaked. News of the deal raised fears that China could establish a military base in the islands, although this has been denied by both sides.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the one-day visit by the Chinese foreign minister would be a “significant milestone” in relations between the two countries.
Sogavare said he looked forward to “productive engagement” with Beijing, “an important development partner at a very critical time in our history.”
After Honiara, Wang will travel to Fiji, followed by Papua New Guinea next week, with suggestions that the tour could also visit Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati, although this part of the itinerary did not have been confirmed.
News of the Chinese tour emerged ahead of a Tuesday meeting of US, Japanese, Australian and Indian leaders at the Quad summit in Tokyo, aimed at countering China’s growing economic and military influence in the region.
It comes amid an “acceleration of the pace” in China’s engagement in the Pacific, according to security experts.
“The pace has certainly picked up over the past two years,” said Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “Certainly Canberra, Wellington and Washington will be watching very closely to see what comes out of these meetings. There is certainly greater recognition now that China is stepping up its engagement in the Pacific and that China has security interests and sees itself as a security actor in the Pacific.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program, said it was an “extraordinary and unprecedented marathon of the region…that will leave many people in the west nervous.”
“It’s not just what the trip signals for China’s post-Covid re-engagement with the region, but the kind of deals it will sign with its counterparts along the way.”
Vanuatu has just signed a contract with China for the construction of a new runway extension at Pekoa airport on the island of Santo, to allow access for larger aircraft, making it accessible for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
China’s interest in Kiribati, meanwhile, is of great concern to Australia, New Zealand and the United States, due to its fisheries resources and geostrategic location in the central Pacific.
Both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands had diplomatic relations with Taiwan until 2019, when they decided to recognize China.
“China is certainly very keen to strengthen its interests in Kiribati. It has significant strategic value, in terms of resources and geostrategic location,” Powles said. “My assessment is that Kiribati is in China’s sights, but it’s not clear yet if that will lead to a security deal.”
Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s ambassador to the US and the UN, told the Guardian that China had agreed in principle to fund the renovation of a World War II airstrip on Kanton Island, but denied that a broader security agreement was underway.
Tito said the Kiribati government approached Washington to rehabilitate the harbor and runway, but “the United States turned us down.”
“They said it would take time, maybe five, six years, to provide funding,” he said. “So the president asked the Chinese ambassador and he said yes in principle, although nothing was signed,” Tito said.
Tito said that while the funding deal had been done “in principle”, it would not happen unless Kiribati’s president formally requested funding from China, and no formal request had yet been made. .
The project would achieve the dual goals of developing tourism in Phoenix, site of some of the most pristine reefs in the world, and providing a refueling station between Kiritimati and Tarawa.
Kiribati has a longstanding defense treaty with the United States, the 1979 Treaty of Tarawa. “There has been a lot of talk about strengthening and renewing the treaty, but none about abrogating it,” Tito said. The treaty gives the United States veto power over military installations in Kiribati built by third countries.