UPDATED AT 04:00 a.m. EDT on 09-04-2023
Australia will increase its security force in the Solomon Islands to help ensure stability during the Pacific Games and next year’s national elections, according to the island country’s government.
The Solomon Islands, which has caused concern for the United States and Australia by forging closer ties with China, is expected to receive thousands of visitors in November for the 24-nation Pacific Games and also will hold its delayed national elections in the first half of 2024.
“The security support needed for both events is huge and Australia’s affirmative response will definitely fill security gaps,” the office of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in a statement Monday.
The statement, without giving numbers, said Australia will increase personnel deployed in the Solomon Islands and extend the broader security deployment, which began in late 2021 in response to a domestic crisis, until the middle of next year.
The Solomon Islands, home to some 700,000 people, has become a focus of the U.S.-China competition for influence in the Pacific and has sought to benefit from the rivalry by securing more development assistance.
Sogavare’s government switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019 and signed a security pact with Beijing last year that the United States feared could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in the region. China has bankrolled more than half the cost of hosting the 2023 Pacific Games including the construction of a 10,000 seat stadium.
Australia sent more than 200 police and troops to the Solomon Islands in December 2021 at the request of Sogavare following anti-China and anti-government riots in the capital Honiara. Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand also sent forces.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said on Monday that “Australia is proud to be Solomon Islands’ primary security partner.”
A spokesperson for the department said additional security personnel will be sent for the Pacific Games in the capital Honiara and Australia’s contribution to the Solomons International Assistance Force–which is the bulk of that force–will continue until June 2024 to provide security for the national elections.
The statement from Sogavare’s office said the formal request for additional security assistance was made to Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in early August.
Australia also will provide support for an increase in security forces from Papua New Guinea, the statement said.
Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, is providing Solomon Islands with an electronic visitor processing system for the Pacific Games, according to a Papua New Guinea government statement last week.
Relations between Australia and the Solomon Islands appeared to dive in July when the Pacific island country signed a police cooperation agreement with China during Sogavare’s second visit to Beijing since 2019. Sogavare accused Australia of interfering in Solomon Islands’ internal affairs after it called for the police agreement to be made public.
Both China and Australia have been providing training and equipment to the Solomon Islands police, including weapons, sparking concern their rivalry could cause new instability in a South Pacific country that spiraled into chaos only two decades ago.
In November last year, China handed over two water cannon trucks, 30 motorbikes and 20 white utility vehicles emblazoned with the red China Aid logo to Solomon Islands police while Australia donated 60 MK18 rifles and 13 vehicles, some of which will be used in a new mobile protection unit for VIPs.
The Solomon Islands statement indicated that officials have been discussing security relations between Australia and the Solomon Islands beyond June 2024.
“PM Sogavare encouraged officials of both countries to continue discussions on a comprehensive security partnership,” it said.
Sogavare has previously said the existing security agreement between Australia and the Solomon Islands needs to be reviewed to take into account challenges faced by both countries.
Story updated to add comment from Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Stephen Wright for BenarNews.