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In Solomon Islands, Australia’s largesse faces China challenge

When the Solomon Islands, an impoverished nation located 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) east of Australia, announced the drafting of a new security deal with China late last month, Australian officials warned the move could undermine security in the South Pacific and manifest Canberra’s long-held fears of a Chinese military base in its back yard.

As the region’s largest aid donor – Australia last year spent a record 1.7 billion Australian dollars ($1.3bn) in development assistance in the South Pacific, as well as billions more on security, health, logistics and telecommunications in the Solomon Islands – Canberra could have imposed economic penalties to pressure Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to rethink the deal.

Instead, Australia increased its largesse, promising a second patrol boat and outpost, 65 million Australian dollars ($49m) for a new embassy, and 22 million Australian dollars ($16.5m) for government salaries and an integrated police, health and disaster management radio network across the archipelago, which is home to about 700,000 people.

But as Australia seeks to reassert its influence, Canberra’s recent rude awakening raises difficult questions about the limits of its ability to check China’s growing influence in the Pacific by showering its neighbours with cash.

“When there was large-scale civil unrest in the capital, Honiara, last year, Australia deployed security personal within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Solomon Islands and other countries in the region followed suit,” Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat to the Solomon Islands and research fellow with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“But the new deal potentially gives extensive reach for Chinese military personnel, assets and armed police. It shows two things: there are security gaps in the Solomon Islands that Australia simply cannot fill,

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