Leaked documents reveal Chinese company’s aviation plans for Solomon Islands to become a ‘regional hub’

One of China’s largest defence and aerospace companies promised to upgrade almost three dozen airstrips in Solomon Islands as part of an ambitious plan to transform the Pacific Island country into an “aeronautical hub” for the region.

In return, the Solomon Islands government said it would purchase six aircraft from AVIC Commercial Aircraft, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned defence behemoth which has built small and medium-sized aeroplanes to be sold to developing countries.

The proposed exchange was laid out two-and-a-half years ago in a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which has been obtained by the ABC.

The document was signed by the Solomon Islands Minister for Communication and Aviation Peter Shanel Agovaka at Yanliang, near Xi’an in central China, in November 2019, only a few months after the Pacific Island country switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan.

Chinese state media reported that the minister also delivered an address at a major aviation conference which AVIC hosted in Yanliang, hailing cooperation with the company as an “opportunity and way forward” for Solomon Islands.

However, it does not appear that either AVIC or the Solomon Islands government pushed ahead with any of the initiatives in the MoU after signing it.

Solomon Airlines CEO unaware of deal

Solomon Airlines currently operates only one international aircraft — an Airbus A320 — and has not moved to buy any new planes from the Chinese firm. It runs three smaller Twin Otter and one Dash 8 aircraft for domestic routes.

And when the ABC contacted the CEO of Solomon Airlines, Brett Gebers, he said he was unaware of the agreement.

Peter Shanel stands behind a lecturn giving a speech on the conference stage.
Mr Agovaka gave a keynote address at the AVIC Aircraft Development Forum in 2019.(AVIC)

“I discussed this MoU with the board and, as it has not yet been presented to the board, the chairman said that he will contact the MCA [Ministry of Communication and Aviation] to find out more about it,” he told the ABC.

That stands in stark contrast to the sweeping vision laid out in the MoU, which declares: “Solomon [Islands] wishes to be part of the regional airline concept where Honiara would receive direct flights from China and become a regional hub.” 

“For this vision, Solomon [Islands] needs to acquire new planes, such as MA600/MA700 and Y-12 aircraft and refurbish airfields,” it says.

The MA600 is a relatively new turboprop plane which AVIC Commercial Aircraft has already sold to a number of countries, including Laos and Benin.

A group of representatives sit around conference meeting tables alongside their country flags.
The deal lays out an ambitious plan to build new airfields in the country.(AVIC: WeChat )

The MoU says the sale would “depend on the further negotiations on price and concessional terms” and would require “ultimate approval of the Board of Solomon Islands and the Government of Solomon Islands”.

The MoU also lays out an ambition to upgrade almost three dozen airstrips across Solomon Islands, saying the purchase of planes is “in combination and is linked to facilitating the upgrade of Solomon Islands domestic airfields in 2 phases. For Phase 1, up to 15 airfields; for Phase 2 the remaining 20 airfields”.

But again, there is no evidence that any of this work has begun.

COVID-19 may have stalled plans

The MoU was one of six agreements signed by Solomon Islands and China in the aftermath of Honiara’s decision to abandon its relationship with Taiwan and establish diplomatic ties with Beijing.

Earlier this month, China and Solomon Islands announced they had signed a security pact, stoking fears in Australia that Beijing might be intent on establishing a military presence in the Pacific Island nation.

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