Nanaia Mahuta confirms ‘unwelcome and unnecessary’ deal came as a surprise to New Zealand and Australia, saying the Solomons must provide transparency

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta
New Zealand foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta has said shock at the China-Solomons security deal shows Australia and New Zealand have suffered a relationship failure with leadership in Honiara. Photograph: Reuters

The shock over China’s security deal with Solomon Islands is evidence of “a relationship failure” , New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister has said, confirming that the pact took New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific nations completely by surprise.

The deal marks Beijing’s first known bilateral security agreement in the Pacific. The text of the final deal is secret, but a draft leaked on social media in March granted Chinese military and police significant access to the country, allowing China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.

While there had been some knowledge of overtures from Beijing to the Solomons on policing, the deal’s scope came as a surprise to officials in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and across the Pacific.

Speaking on Monday, Nanaia Mahuta told the Guardian that New Zealand’s first knowledge of the deal was when a draft was leaked online at the end of March, reinforcing statements from the defence minister, Peeni Henare, that it had caught Australia and New Zealand off-guard.

“In terms of the detail of any security agreement, it would be fair to say that probably very few of the Pacific nations, New Zealand included, will have been aware of the detail of those discussions – or, in fact, how far those discussions had progressed to something material,” Mahuta said. She condemned the deal as “unwelcome and unnecessary”, and said in March that it “could destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security”.

However, Australian politicians have been circumspect about whether the draft deal came as a surprise. Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, and the Pacific minister, Zed Seselja, both confirmed they did not know of the deal until it was leaked online at the end of March, but the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has refused to answer questions about what he knew, or when. Behind the scenes, Australian officials briefed some media outlets that Australian intelligence was aware of the agreement and were pushing for it to be leaked.

“I would say that this is a relationship failure,” Mahuta said when asked if the shock leak represented an intelligence failure for Australia and New Zealand. “That’s why it’s so important for the Solomons to provide a level of transparency – to ensure that we can elevate the conversations around the impact of those arrangements around regional security and regional sovereignty to the Pacific Islands Forum.”

Much of the responsibility for that breakdown in relationship, however, lay at the feet of the Solomons’ government, and, by extension, its prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, she suggested.

“It would be good manners, and good protocol, to enable your neighbours to have a greater awareness and understanding of your concerns around regional security prior to entering into relationships outside the region,” she said. “While we respect the sovereignty of the Solomons and any nation in the Pacific, we also respect our contribution towards supporting and strengthening the cohesion of the Pacific.”

Mahuta added that was “very much a New Zealand-centric view of where the relationship breakdown has occurred … I don’t want to conflate New Zealand’s position with Australia’s – we stand on our own two feet in relation to the way in which we work with our Pacific neighbours.”

The deal raised immediate concerns from New Zealand, Australia and the United States about the prospect of a Chinese military base being built in the Solomons – and in the wider Pacific that the region could become a chessboard for geopolitical powers.

Australia called the prospect of a military base a “red line”, and the US said it would “take action” in response to any base being built. Within the Solomons, Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, argued it “would make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field” and “further threaten the nation’s fragile unity”.

Mahuta, however, said heated discussions of a possible military base were not helpful. “We’ve got to take this one step at a time,” she said. “The first conversation should be to understand the nature of the arrangements – because if we jump too quickly to a set of hypotheticals that aren’t confirmed … it’s not going to be helpful to the kind of conversation New Zealand believes would benefit the region.”

She said New Zealand had to “take at face value” assurances from Solomon Islands that a naval base would not go ahead. “We would be deeply concerned if the nature of these arrangements led to the militarisation of the Solomon Islands,” she said. “We take at face value … [the assurance] that these arrangements will not lead to the militarisation of a base in Honiara … [although] it would be good to have something written down.”

Within the Solomons, the agreement has raised concerns that Chinese forces could be used by authorities to squash dissent and protest. A cartoon widely shared in Solomon Islands on social media shows protesters being hemmed in by an armed Xi Jinping in military garb, while Sogavare stands behind Xi, saying: “He’s protecting you from you.”

Mahuta tacitly acknowledged those concerns, saying New Zealand’s previous assistance during periods of unrest had been designed to assist the population broadly, rather than to benefit political elites.

“New Zealand … when we respond to issues of unrest, like in the Solomons, our response is for all people in the Solomons, not just some people. So, again, it was a curious set of arrangements from our perspective,” she said.

Even as the security deal continues to generate headlines, however, Mahuta said the greatest threats to the Pacific and its security were climate change and the economic impact of Covid. Last week the Pacific Elders’ Voice group, which includes former leaders of the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu, released a statement saying it was climate change, not military bases that needed the most urgent attention.

“The big conversation for the Pacific is not necessarily a security conversation, but an economic conversation because the level of economic vulnerability of the Pacific has only been compounded by Covid and will continue to be compounded by climate change,” Mahuta said.

“It’s not just security issues that create instability. It’s actually economic fragility. That is a challenge for the Pacific that needs to be discussed.”