One of the ADF’s most senior officers has warned that if China manages to station warships in Solomon Islands it would “change the calculus” for Australia’s military, forcing a change to Defence operations.
- Lieutenant General Greg Bilton says greater Chinese military presence would change day-to-day ADF operations
- He says patrolling patterns and maritime activities would change
- The budget contained extra cash for a new strategic port in Darwin amid concerns about China’s influence in the region
Concern is growing that Honiara and Beijing will soon sign a new security pact allowing Chinese personnel and equipment to be stationed in the Pacific nation, which is less than 2,000 kilometres off the Queensland coast.
This week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare defended the draft agreement but declared that there was no plan to allow China to build a naval or military base in his country, saying the suggestion was “misinformation.”
The Defence Force’s Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, said any stationing of People’s Liberation Army-Navy vessels there would affect Australia’s military operations.
“It does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomon Islands,” General Bilton said while visiting the Australian Signals Directorate in Canberra.
“We would change our patrolling patterns and our maritime awareness activities,” he added.
Earlier this year Chinese police officers began supporting members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, just months after Australian Federal Police and ADF personnel were dispatched to Honiara following anti-government riots.
“We find ourselves in a circumstance where we will be present in the Solomon Islands and so too will the Chinese seeking to provide training and support to the same organisation,” General Bilton said.
“It is an unusual circumstance for us to be interfacing with the Chinese in the Solomon Islands and I guess they will, and we will, get an understanding of how they intend to support the (Royal) Solomon Islands Police Force.”
Appearing at a Senate estimates hearing, the Federal Police Commissioner has revealed he personally lobbied his counterpart in Solomon Islands to stick with the Australian training program.
AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told the committee he made Australia’s view clear to the head of the Royal Solomon Islands force and cited the death of an Australian police officer shot on patrol in 2004.
“We have lost one of our own over there, so we are not going to let other nations come in and try and change that whole framework,” he said.
“It works. The community crime dropped police force are more professional than ever before and we want to maintain that position of being the partner of choice in the region.”
Budget funding for new NT port amid China fears
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed the government will have “more to say” about a proposed new strategic port to be built in the Northern Territory.
Many national security experts have raised concerns about the existing Port of Darwin being leased to Chinese subsidiary company Landbridge.
This week’s budget allocated $1.5 billion toward the dredging of a shipping channel and the creation of a wharf and offloading facility in Northern Australia.
“There’s a massive commitment from the government into the Northern Territory and in fact into regional Australia,” Mr Dutton said.
“That does look at port development and ways in which we might be able to look at support through contracts in defence, for example, the underpinning of a business model, and we will have more to say about that in due course.”
Under questioning at Senate estimates, Infrastructure Department Secretary Simon Atkinson suggested the new facility would be built at Middle Arm inside Darwin Harbour.
Lachlan Colquhoun, a first assistant secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, told Senate estimates that the money would not be used to build a new port, rather a new facility within the existing port.
“I don’t know how well you know the geography of the Port of Darwin but it’s a very large area and the piece that’s been leased to Landbridge is only a section of that,” he said.
“It’s a facility within the existing port.”
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the main purpose of the facility was for economic development but it could also eventually be used by Defence.
Pushed on what would be in the new facility, James Chisholm, also a first assistant secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, outlined further details.
“The sort of infrastructure that’s being looked at here would be things like wharf infrastructure, offloading facilities, dredging to support the shipping channel, ” he said.
“But it is all subject to business cases, and feasibility work that will be developed.”
In 2019, the ABC revealed secret planning had begun for a new port facility just outside Darwin that could eventually help US Marines operate more readily in the Indo-Pacific.
The federal government has not yet proceeded with the proposed facility at Glyde Point, to the east of the Northern Territory capital, and the Defence Department denies it was involved in the planning.