Upgrading the port is essential for the Solomon Islands’ economy and might not be military focused, but ‘it is not about bases, it is about access,’ an analyst said
The Solomon Islands has awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in Honiara in a project funded by the Asian Development Bank, a Solomon Islands official said yesterday.
China Civil Engineering Construction Co (CCECC) was the only company to submit a bid in the competitive tender, Solomon Islands Ministry of Infrastructure Development official Mike Qaqara said.
“This will be upgrading the old international port in Honiara and two domestic wharves in the provinces,” Qaqara said.
Responding to concerns that the port could be deepened for Chinese naval access, he said there would be “no expansion.”
The Solomon Islands struck a security pact with Beijing last year, prompting concern from the US and its allies, including Australia, Japan and New Zealand, over China’s ambitions to build a naval base in the region.
The Solomon Islands and China have denied the security pact would allow a naval base.
Delegations from China and the US are visiting Honiara this week, competing for influence in the strategically located Pacific islands nation.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met China International Development Cooperation Agency vice chairman Tang Wenhong (唐文弘) on Tuesday and signed on to Beijing’s Global Development Initiative, his office said in a statement.
The Chinese aid agency has funded infrastructure projects since Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 2019, and development cooperation with China would be strengthened, the office added.
Sogavare also held “strategic dialogue” with a visiting US delegation, at which US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell “reiterated our support for a free, open, secure, and prosperous Solomon Islands,” the US embassy in Honiara said in a statement.
The port reconstruction deal is part of a US$170 million project funded by the Asian Development Bank to upgrade roads and wharves, which saw CCECC awarded the roads component last year, the government of the Solomon Islands said.
“This will see the rehabilitation of the old Honiara international port and construction of the Honiara domestic port and two provincial ports,” the government said in a statement.
Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who was among 10 Pacific island leaders who declined to sign a regional security and trade pact with China in June last year, told reporters in Australia that “this is a commercial port, although I think the fears are it might morph into something else … dual purpose.”
“Other countries also have military or naval stations within the region,” she added.
Wharves were essential for the Solomon Islands economic development, but were they also “dual purpose” facilities that could give China’s navy access to the region, said Peter Connolly, who is researching China’s Pacific infrastructure projects at Australian National University.
“It is not about bases, it is about access,” Connolly, a former military officer, said, referring to the security pact between Honiara and Beijing.
Writing in Australian Foreign Affairs this month, Connolly said that the Asian Development Bank infrastructure contracts in the Pacific islands had been dominated by Chinese state companies who offered the lowest bids.
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