HONIARA ABC PACIFIC) — The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has donated dozens of semi-automatic rifles to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), in what diplomats have called a “landmark” step up in security cooperation.
However, the announcement has been slammed by opposition leader Matthew Wale, who has warned against the “militarisation” of Solomon Islands and accused Australia of making the donation purely to stop China building up its influence in the police force.
The 60 MK18 rifles — along with 13 new police vehicles — were handed over to Solomon Islands police at a ceremony in the capital, Honiara, on Wednesday.
In a statement, the Acting Commander of the AFP’s Police Partnerships ProgramME, Clinton Smith, said the weapons would provide the RSIPF with “enhanced capabilities to counter criminal threats and maintain peace and stability” ahead of the Pacific Games next year and the island nation’s national elections in 2024.
“The AFP and RSIPF have a deep friendship that is regularly demonstrated through the sharing of resources and capability, to ensure current and future security challenges and needs in the region are met,” he said.
“The AFP is proud to be the Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice and will continue to work closely with RSIPF officers to ensure [their police] are trained and equipped to provide the Solomon Islands community with an efficient, modern police force.”
However, Wale slammed the move late Wednesday, saying he was worried that the guns would be used against protesters in the future.
“Obviously, we do not have external threats, so why the introduction of these high-powered guns?” he said.
“Or are we on the pathway of being militarised again? If it is none of the two matters raised above, then we are arming ourselves against our own citizens.”
Wale said he was worried that Australia was being driven by its “anxiety” about China’s growing cooperation with Solomon Islands police.
“It is clear Australia is anxious that, if they do not supply guns, then China will,” he said.
“Geopolitical interests has surpassed national interests in this country and it is a sad state of affairs,” he said.
Australia has long been the dominant international partner for the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, but China has recently been rapidly expanding its own police training programmes in the country.
Over the past year, Chinese police have provided riot gear and dozens of replica weapons to Solomon Islands police for training, run training programs in multiple provinces and recently sent a cohort of 32 local officers to China for a training course.
Police rearmament also remains a deeply sensitive topic in Solomon Islands, which was roiled with ethnic violence for years before Australia led a regional assistance mission to restore order in 2003.
Before then, militias raided police armouries and used the weapons to fight battles and extort locals.
When Australian troops arrived in the country, they destroyed thousands of weapons handed in during a gun amnesty. The AFP only began to gradually rearm Solomon Islands police from 2013.
A contingent of Solomon Islands police officers was trained with the MK18s in Brisbane earlier this year, and conducted live-fire drills in July.
On social media, Australia’s High Commissioner to Solomon Islands, Lachlan Strahan, stressed that the firearms came with “stringent training and rigorous safeguards, including concerning safe and secure storage”.
The weapons will only by used by the RSIPF’s elite Police Response Team, and will not be available to regular officers, who do not carry firearms.
The AFP has also stressed the agreement to provide these new firearms formally occurred during the development of the RSIPF AFP Policing Partnership Programme, which commenced in July 2021.
That’s several months before China started its own cooperation program with Solomon Islands police, in December of that year.
However, Dr Anna Powles — from Massey University in New Zealand — said that handing over semi-automatic rifles still represented a “step change in the types of weapons provided under the Australian-Solomon Islands policing partnership”.
“China donated 95 replica assault weapons to the RSIPF to train with earlier this year — presumably, with the intent of supplying actual weapons or converting the replicas,” she told the ABC.
“The influx of weapons into Solomons raises concerns about the number of weapons in Solomon Islands and the risk of theft from the police armouries.
“We now have a situation where two competing security stakeholders are arming units within the RSIPF.”
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare heaped praise on the donation at a ceremony this morning, declaring that “robust security” was necessary for “investor confidence” in his country.
Honiara was once again rocked with violence in November last year when anti-government protests devolved into rioting and looting.
Australia, once again, sent in a contingent of troops and police to restore order, and a small contingent will remain in the capital until just after the Pacific Games next year.
Sogavare has repeatedly cited the riots — and the substantial damage they did to Solomon Islands’ economy — as one of the reasons why his country needed to turn to China for additional security assistance.
He told the handover ceremony this morning that it was crucial for police in Solomon Islands to be equipped properly so they could be given the appropriate “trust” and “respect”.
“I am emphasising the need for an equipped police force is paramount, not only for security but also for social economic growth,” he said.
“Law and order is an enabler to development and it is important, as a sovereign state, we are able to better protect ourselves, deliver on our security mandates and confront any threat when it comes,” he said…. PACNEWS