A shipment of replica firearms by China to police in the Solomon Islands has raised concerns as the Pacific nation grapples with security concerns sparked by its increasingly close relationship with Beijing.
Police forces had been criticized for the secrecy surrounding the delivery of what a local media described as a ‘large arms shipment’ that arrived in the country on a logging vessel earlier this month from a source unknown.
On Tuesday, police said the guns – 95 rifles and 92 pistols – were replicas donated by China for police training and denied accusations that the force had anything “to conceal or hide”. He also posted photos of the police training with the replicas.
The Solomon Islands banned firearms and replica guns in 2000 during a bloody ethnic dispute in which police armories were looted by militias. However, the police were allowed to carry arms again in 2017.
“These things do not threaten the security of this country in any way so far, except that they are as good as helping the RSIPF [Royal Solomon Islands Police Force] in enhancing his tactical knowledge and abilities,” Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau said in a statement.
“RSIPF is the lead security agency in this country and therefore part of the methodology that we use or apply does not require the public to be aware of it for a matter of national security,” he added.
It comes amid wider security concerns that Beijing could base navy warships in the region, according to a leaked draft security agreement that emerged on Thursday. The arrangements are also likely to worry the United States, which said in February it would open an embassy in the Solomon Islands after senior US administration officials expressed concern about China’s willingness to create military relations in the Pacific Islands.
It comes just months after riots in the Solomon Islands, sparked in part by the country’s 2019 change in diplomatic relations with Beijing from Taiwan.
Solomon Islands’ political opposition remains skeptical of the shipment of replica firearms and has demanded access to the replicas in order to verify that they are not real weapons.
“The questions that arouse a lot of suspicion are why are replica weapons being unloaded into a timber pond somewhere in Guadalcanal on a logging barge? Why aren’t they shipped commercially and unloaded at our internationally recognized port?” said Deputy Leader of the Opposition Peter Kenilorea Jr.
The government has distanced itself from the saga and said it will be up to the police to decide whether they allow the media to view the replica weapons in order to allay public concerns.
In November last year, up to 60 buildings in the capital, Honiara, were destroyed in riots that caused more than $300 million in damage. Buildings in Chinatown were targeted during the arson and looting.
The unrest came after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to launch relations with China fueled a dispute between the national government and the most populous province, Malaita, although other domestic issues also sparked the dissatisfaction.
Troops and police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea were deployed to the country to assist local police immediately afterwards. China has also since sent a team of police to help with the training.