SYDNEY, March 22 (Reuters) – The Solomon Islands has awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in Honiara in a project funded by the Asian Development Bank, an official of the island nation said on Wednesday.
The China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) was the only company to submit a bid in the competitive tender, Mike Qaqara of the infrastructure development ministry told Reuters.
“This will be upgrading the old international port in Honiara and two domestic wharves in the provinces,” Qaqara said.
The ADB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Solomon Islands struck a security pact with Beijing last year, prompting concern from the United States and its allies, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, 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, however.
Delegations from China and the United States are visiting Honiara this week, competing for influence in the strategically-located Pacific islands nation.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met the vice chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, Tang Wenghong, 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 Taiwan in 2019, and development co-operation with China would be strengthened, the office added.
Sogavare also held “strategic dialogue” with a visiting U.S. delegation, at which Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the National Security Council, “reiterated our support for a free, open, secure, and prosperous Solomon Islands”, the U.S. embassy in Honiara said in a statement.
The port reconstruction deal is part of a $170-million project funded by the ADB to upgrade roads and wharves, which saw CCECC awarded the roads component in 2022, 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.
Wharves were essential for Solomon Islands economic development but were they also “dual purpose” facilities which could give China’s navy access to the region, said Peter Connolly, who is researching China’s Pacific infrastructure projects at the Australian National University (ANU).
“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 the Australian Foreign Affairs this month, Connolly noted that ADB infrastructure contracts in the Pacific islands had been dominated by Chinese state companies who offered the lowest bids.
Honiara’s port needed upgrading, but if it was made deeper for larger ships there would be concern it was being prepared for military vessels, according to Graeme Smith, associate professor in Pacific Affairs at ANU.
Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney;
Editing by Alasdair Pal, Clarence Fernandez and Simon Cameron-Moore
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