The sweeping deal, signed by the head of a provincial government and executives from a Beijing-based conglomerate, had shocked residents.
A Chinese company's agreement to lease an entire island in the South Pacific has been ruled illegal by the attorney general of the Solomon Islands, reversing or at least delaying a major push into a location long prized for its strategic value.
The deal for the island, Tulagi — a headquarters for world powers both before and during World War II — granted exclusive development rights for at least 75 years. It was signed by the head of the provincial government and executives from China Sam, a Beijing-based conglomerate founded as a state-owned enterprise.
The attorney general's office said in a statement Thursday that the agreement should be terminated because it lacked vital details, such as timelines, and encroached on the powers of the national government.
The statement noted that China Sam had not registered as a foreign investor, and yet tried to secure the right to negotiate with every other Chinese company that might be interested in Tulagi.
The agreement had shocked residents of the island, some of whom feared that China was seeking to establish a military foothold there. Critics of the deal welcomed the attorney general's decision, but warned that China Sam — and other Chinese interests — may see this more as a temporary setback than a cancellation of their plans.
"This is just a stall," said Peter Kenilorea Jr., an opponent of the deal who is the deputy opposition leader in Parliament and chairman of its foreign relations committee. "The fact that the contract itself is flawed doesn't negate the intention behind the signing. The intention is still there."
Tulagi — a slug-shaped strip of land across from Guadalcanal with around 2,000 residents — has a natural deepwater port. John F. Kennedy was sent there to recover after his torpedo boat, the PT-109, was attacked in 1943, and before the war, the island was the Solomons' capital under British and then Japanese rule.
The signing of the agreement for Tulagi had been initially heralded locally as a way to spur long-awaited development. But once details of the signed deal emerged through leaked copies reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, residents mobilised, demanding clarifications on property rights, plans for payment, and China Sam's plans.
"They were called out," Kenilorea said. "If whoever took those snapshots didn't take them, I think this would have gone ahead without anyone knowing."
He and other opponents of the agreement noted that despite Thursday's announcement, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's government had previously welcomed China Sam executives to the country. And during Sogavare's recent trip to China, which followed the country's decision to cut ties with Taiwan and establish formal relations with Beijing, he met with China Sam's senior leaders.
The company has not commented on its plans and could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
But Kenilorea said there were many other deals in motion between Chinese investors and the Solomon Islands' government that also deserve more scrutiny.
Five memorandums of understanding were signed with Chinese entities after the Solomons cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. But beyond broad-brush descriptions, few details are known. Kenilorea said he was still waiting for a response to his request for copies of the actual agreements.
Earlier this week, the government held a news conference about the national telecom provider, where officials suggested working with Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, whose products the Trump administration has contended could be used by the Chinese government for spying.
"Those kinds of utterances reveal to me that their interests go to other parts of the country and other sectors," Kenilorea said.
Written by: Damien Cave
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES