By Alfred Sasako
AUSTRALIA now appears certain to build a naval base in Solomon Islands, the first such undertaking by an Australian government since World War II.
The first hint on the secret arrangement came from the Australian High Commission in Honiara yesterday in response to earlier questions raised by Island Sun about the matter.
Island Sun understands the site being earmarked for the naval base is Sterling Island in the Shortlands along the Western sea border with the Papua New Guinea island province of Bougainville.
Details of funding arrangements for the facility are not immediately clear. Some believe part of the $1.4 billion announced earlier this year by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, could be used for building the military facility.
Others say the United States Government is likely to chip in towards the cost of construction.
A Naval Base proposal was first mooted by the Danny Philip Administration in 2010/2011. Canberra rejected the proposal after the head of a political party in the then Philip coalition government suggested the Sterling Island facility should be turned into a refugee processing centre.
Insiders told Island Sun China’s growing influence in the Pacific has forced Canberra’s hands to reconsider its initial position.
“Now the proposal for a Naval Base facility has been taken onboard by Canberra,” one official told Island Sun.
The Counsellor at the Australian High Commission in Honiara, Max Willis, was not giving away any details. In an email on Monday Mr Willis said:
“Australia listens closely to the concerns of the Solomon Islands Government and we are working very closely with the Government to assist its work to strengthen border security arrangements, including near the western border with Papua New Guinea.
On June 3, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Solomon Islands counterpart, Manasseh Sogavare stated this:
“In line with our bilateral security treaty, we commit to deeper cooperation on defence and security. Australia is providing technical assistance to help Solomon Islands develop a border security strategy, which will be used to inform possible future collaboration in this area.
“Australia is also pleased to provide infrastructure and communications upgrades to existing police outposts in the western border region.
“This support will be provided in accordance with the Solomon Islands’ three-phased approach to strengthening surveillance, response capability and protection of the country’s western border.”
Some observers said the move by Australia is a good one as it would nullify the perceived security threat from China.
“It will prove that China is not about military conquest in the Pacific. Rather, its interest particularly in Solomon Islands is about creating partnership in economic development,” the observer said.
“No other countries have the sort of economic resources that China has.”