The Solomon Islands has awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in Honiara in a project funded by the Asian Development Bank, an official of the island nation said on Wednesday.
The United States and its allies, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, have held concerns that China has ambitions to build a naval base in the region since the Solomon Islands struck a security pact with Beijing last year.
"This will be upgrading the old international port in Honiara and two domestic wharves in the provinces," said Mike Qaqara, an official at the Solomons' infrastructure development ministry.
China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) was awarded the contract after being the sole bidder in a competitive tender, Qaqara said.
Downplaying the concerns among western governments, Qaqara, told Reuters that there would be "no expansion" of the project. The Solomon Islands and China have consistently denied that their security pact would allow a naval base.
"The Australian Government closely monitors developments which might impact on our national interest. The Solomon Islands Infrastructure Development Ministry has said that there will be no expansion of the port for dual use," a spokesperson for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Wednesday evening.
Delegations from China and the United States are visiting Honiara this week, competing for influence in the strategically-located Pacific islands nation.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met the vice chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, Tang Wenghong, and signed on to Beijing's Global Development Initiative, his office said in a statement.
The Chinese agency has funded infrastructure projects since Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, and development co-operation would be strengthened, the office added.
Sogavare also held a "strategic dialogue" with Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the United States National Security Council, who "reiterated our support for a free, open, secure, and prosperous Solomon Islands", the U.S. embassy in Honiara said in a statement.
The port reconstruction deal is part of a $170-million project funded by the ADB to upgrade roads and wharves, which saw CCECC awarded the roads component in 2022.
"This will see the rehabilitation of the old Honiara international port and construction of the Honiara domestic port and two provincial ports," the Solomon Islands government said in a statement.
Samoa's Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, who was among 10 Pacific island leaders who declined to sign a regional security and trade pact with China in June, told reporters in Australia "this is a commercial port, although I think the fears are it might morph into something else... dual purpose".
"Other countries also have military or naval stations within the region," she added.
Wharves were essential for Solomon Islands economic development but they could become "dual purpose" facilities which could give China's navy access to the region, said Peter Connolly, who is researching China's Pacific infrastructure projects at the Australian National University (ANU).
"It is not about bases it is about access," Connolly, a former military officer, said, referring to the security pact between Honiara and Beijing.
Writing in the Australian Foreign Affairs this month, Connolly noted that ADB infrastructure contracts in the Pacific islands had been dominated by Chinese state companies who offered the lowest bids.
The ADB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reuters - Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Alasdair Pal, Clarence Fernandez and Simon Cameron-Moore)