The Solomon Islands opposition is calling for an independent investigation into a contentious shipment of “replica weapons” brought into the Pacific Island country by China after publicly released U.S. diplomatic cables claimed the guns were likely real.
A controversy erupted in Solomon Islands in March last year after local media reported that firearms had been smuggled into the capital Honiara.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) said at the time that the weapons were “not capable of firing any live munitions” and that the Chinese embassy had shipped them into the country to help train local officers.
But the Solomon Islands opposition and some civil society activists were deeply sceptical of that claim, and rumours around the shipment have continued to swirl over the last 18 months.
On Friday last week Al Jazeera reported that U.S. diplomats in Port Moresby cabled back to Washington at the time saying the weapons seemed to be genuine, citing a source who said the “weapons appeared real in every way, including in weight and mechanics”.
The RSIPF held a demonstration showing off the “replica” weapons more than a week after the story first broke, but the U.S. diplomatic cable said the guns in the crate were “not the same” as the ones publicly displayed.
The RSIPF has not yet responded to the claims in the diplomatic missive, but the head of the Solomon Islands Foreign Ministry Collin Beck took to social media over the weekend to call the story false.
“Sad to see divisive geopolitical narrative to tarnish (Solomon Islands’) image with article that holds no truth,” he said on the website X, formerly Twitter.
“Allegation of (Solomon Islands) receiving arms from China is not true and not helpful against today’s fast-changing international system.”
But the opposition leader in Solomon Islands, Matthew Wale, has lashed the RSIPF and the government, accusing them of “deception at the very high level”.
“When the very institutions entrusted to protect us are implicated in such deceptive acts, it becomes clear that this government cannot be trusted, especially on matters as critical as national security,” Wale said in a statement.
Prominent opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr told the ABC the RSIPF needed to publicly respond to the allegation, and that the government should follow that up by establishing a commission of inquiry into the shipment.
“To have this assessment made by a prominent development partner just begs that question again: Were we told the truth? And in the end the truth is what we want to know,” he said.
“There needs to be a broader inquiry into this rather than just the word of the Police Commissioner … to come up independently and verify for us whether yes or no.”
Kenilorea Jr said the allegation of weapons smuggling brought back memories of the violence and upheaval which bedevilled Solomon Islands in the lead-up to the RAMSI intervention in 2003, when militants took control of police armouries and seized semi-automatic weapons.
“For us, allegations of real weapons coming in, these are issues which touch the heart of the security of our nation,” he said.
The controversy comes as Australia tries to cement its security ties with Solomon Islands, and ward off China’s attempts to establish itself as a key security partner for the Pacific Island country in the wake of the contentious security pact it signed with Beijing last year.
China has donated dozens of cars and motorcycles to the RSIPF, as well as two water cannon trucks, while last year Australia handed over more than 60 rifles, along with 13 new police vehicles.
Australian police and military personnel led another security intervention into Solomon Islands in late 2021 after Honiara was hit with widespread looting and rioting and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called for assistance.
Australian police remain in the country under the Solomon Islands Assistance Force and over the weekend the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed that more personnel would be sent over to help provide security for the Pacific Games in November.
DFAT said that Australia had also agreed to extend the presence of the contingent until June next year, to help with elections due in 2024.
Sogavare has repeatedly assured Australia that it remains the security “partner of choice” for his country but has also warned he will call on China for help if he needs to do so. A spokesperson for DFAT stressed it made the security commitment at the request of the Solomon Islands government, and said Australia was “proud to be Solomon Islands’ primary security partner”.
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Solomon Islands opposition MP calls for investigation after U.S. cable says ‘replica’ Chinese guns were likely real