According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a Chinese state-owned company is looking into the possibility of purchasing a Deep Water Port and an era Airstrip from World War II in Solomon Islands.
The China Forestry Group Corporation is under Beijing’s direct control and looking for acquisition targets. This includes a plantation in Kolombangara, a circle-shaped island that was the site of intense fighting between Imperial Japan and the Allies during World War II.
The plantation covers two-thirds of the island and includes 14,000 hectares of hardwood forest, 24,000 hectares of protected forest, a deep water port, an old marine base, airstrip, and large tracts of flat land.
Kolombangara also belongs to the New Georgia Islands group in the Western Province, Solomon Islands. The airport is close to Noro, a key tuna fishing center, and Munda. There is also significant Chinese investment.
Talks to Kolombangara started in 2019, when a delegation of China Forestry arrived on the island. The delegation seemed to have little interest in trees but was keen on the wharf as well as its depth.
The plantation currently belongs to private investors from Australia and Taiwan, as well the Solomon Islands government. These two governments have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party. Talks have resumed since May 2022,.
Members from the board of Kolombangara Forests Products Ltd have written to Penny Wong, Australian Foreign Minister, to express concerns about Beijing’s interests, according to ABC’s Four Corners programme. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia responded to the concern by stating that it wouldn’t intervene in this specific transaction.
The Australian government has already made investments in the Solomon Islands to counter Beijing’s influence. These include works at Noro fishing, container hubs, and financing six mobile towers throughout the country.
Beijing Influence deeply rooted in the Solomons
It comes as Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei continues working with the Solomons national government to build 200 mobile towers across the islands. Huawei was removed from Australia’s 5G network 2018 due to security concerns. This decision was made by many democratic governments, including those in the United States of America, Japan, India and Taiwan in later years.
Meanwhile, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was also found to have activated a secret Beijing-backed slush fund in the lead-up to a no-confidence motion in December–distributing $80,000 to every MP loyal to him (and nothing to those who opposed him).
The latest revelations are coming as democracy leaders continue to boost support in the Pacific area in response Beijing’s continuing influence, which has entrenched corrupt national leaders.
Further the deal with the plantation isn’t the only indication that Beijing has military ambitions in the area. Documents revealing that Avic International Project Engineer Co. was a Chinese-owned aircraft company had leaked in April. It was looking for potential sites to develop infrastructure and naval projects for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The news was made after the secret security agreement between the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare (China) that allowed the PLAN troops, weapons and naval vessels to be stationed in the area. This opens the doors to full militarization similar to what is happening in the South China Sea.
Saogavare continues to insist that Beijing won’t establish a military base.
Daniel Y. Teng resides in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Have a tip for him? Contact him at [email protected].