China’s Security Pact with the Solomon Islands Roils the Region

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China has taken advantage of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis and continuing tensions with the United States to expand its maritime and strategic footprint in the South Pacific. The move comes amid increasingly close ties with Moscow, especially ahead of the conflict in Ukraine when Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement on their shared vision of a world order not dominated by the US. On April 19, China and the Solomon Islands signed an agreement to “enhance social stability and long-term tranquility” in the islands.1 Under the agreement, the two sides agreed to “conduct co-operation in such areas as maintenance of social order, protection of the safety of people’s lives and property, humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response, in an effort to help Solomon Islands strengthen capacity building in safeguarding its own security.”

 

This has raised concerns among Western countries that fear the agreement could give Beijing a military foothold in the South Pacific. It is a first-of-its-kind arrangement that could pave the way for further Chinese security deals abroad. The Solomon Islands, however, clarified that there was no agreement for a Chinese military base. It may be recalled when China established its first foreign military base in Djibouti near the Horn of Africa in 2017, it went against a longstanding Chinese policy of not opening foreign bases.2 President Xi, however, is being guided by the advice of military experts who have spoken of the need for further facilities to project power as well as to service China’s fast-expanding navy.

 

The Solomon Islands agreement is not transparent, and there are ambiguities over its content and intentions. If its claims of “maintaining social order” mean Chinese security forces might be deployed, that is a dangerous proposition. Although Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare claimed the deal has “solely domestic applications” and pledged “no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability,” the US warned that it would “respond accordingly” if Beijing maintains a military presence in the Solomons. Washington dispatched senior diplomat and Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell to expedite the reopening of the US embassy in Honiara, the island nation’s capital.3 US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had announced in February 2022 that the US would launch a strategic dialogue and a program on maritime domain awareness as well as other initiatives. The US decision was seen as a response to the increased Chinese presence there.

 

The background to the Chinese move is significant. The US embassy in the Solomon Islands had been closed for 29 years. The last visit by a US Secretary of State to a Pacific island, Fiji, was 37 years ago. Beijing thus rightly questioned why the US has suddenly taken an interest in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) after all these years of neglect. The answer, of course, is the changing geopolitics of the region and the perception that China is viewing it as part of its own backyard — a new geopolitical dimension with potentially perilous consequences.

 

Doling Out Favors

 

China has been using economic aid as an incentive for many small countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan to switch allegiance. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati fell to the temptation and switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in September 2019, leaving Taiwan with only 16 countries that officially recognize it as an independent nation after El Salvador, Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic, among others, also switched sides.4 This was a significant move. It signaled that the Solomon Islands was now happy to flirt with the idea of being closer to China. The move, however, set off a rupture in Solomon politics because it was suspected that many politicians were individually financed with slush funds from China, which were used to lock in support for the diplomatic switch.

 

With the switch, the Solomon Islands ended 36 years of recognition of Taiwan’s government. There were rumors that China bribed Solomon politicians to abandon Taipei in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the Oct. 1 founding of the People’s Republic of China. By using this financial diplomacy, China wanted to diminish Taiwan’s international presence, hurt the Taiwanese people, and gradually suppress and eliminate Taiwan’s sovereignty. One might argue, of course, that the US set the example back in 1979 when Washington broke official ties with Taipei in order to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing as a Cold War counterweight against the Soviet Union, leaving Taiwan as an important but unofficial US ally in East Asia.

 

Deepening Security Partnership

 

In March 2022, a draft document outlining a security co-operation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked online. It proposed an agreement that opens up the possibility of a greater Chinese military presence on the islands and potentially a Chinese military base. This inevitably raised concerns among other Pacific nations and Western governments fearful of China’s expanding influence in the region.5 Although the draft cited a need for “social order” as a justification for sending Chinese forces, it set off alarms throughout the Pacific, where concerns about China’s intentions have been growing for years.

 

The pact was shrouded in secrecy. It took diplomats and government officials, even from within the Solomon Islands, by complete surprise, prompting a scramble by Western powers to try to block Chinese influence in the region and outrage among Solomon Islanders. The shockwaves were felt in Canberra, Wellington and Washington.6

 

The contents of the leaked document give reasons for the US and Pacific nations to worry about Beijing’s hidden intentions. It mentions that the Solomon Islands can request Beijing to send police, armed forces, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to assist in maintaining social order and protecting people’s lives and property. The most worrying detail was that both sides would maintain secrecy and “neither party shall disclose the co-operation information to a third party.” As a reward, Chinese ships can visit and carry out logistical replenishment and have stopover and transition rights in the island nation. Such provisions are a clear challenge to US influence in the South Pacific.

 

The domestic opposition in the Solomons was critical of how the pact was signed in utter secrecy. Elections are due in 2023, and Prime Minister Sogavare is empowered by the agreement to call on China for protection of his own government. The islanders fear a breakdown of democracy as more unrest is likely. If such a scenario unfolds, China could move in to maintain the status quo. Moreover, a Chinese base operating between the US and Australia would empower China to block shipping traffic across the South Pacific. Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition party in the Solomon Islands’ Parliament, fears that the “very general, overarching, vague” agreement could be used for anything. The essence of the pact is about political survival for Sogavare, with no bearing on the national security of the Solomon Islands. With the pact now in place, this will only fuel local, regional, and international concerns over Beijing’s unilateral expansion of its internal security apparatus to the Pacific.

 

New Flashpoint

 

Earlier, because of China’s aggressive and expansionist moves in the South China Sea and continuous threats to Taiwan to integrate with the mainland, these two areas were seen as flashpoints where any unintended move could have devastating consequences. China’s controversial “nine-dash line,” showing on maps the extent of its territorial ambitions over the maritime territory of countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, has enhanced tensions. The Chinese military has since artificially expanded islands in the South China Sea to build military installations with runways. It allows the Chinese military to project its power and secure vital shipping routes in the event of war.

 

Now the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands has become the latest flashpoint between Beijing and Washington. The pact is significant in reflecting China’s willingness to deploy its forces abroad.7 Unless early measures are adopted, Beijing might go into overdrive to negotiate more such deals with small and weaker nations that might be tempted to fall into its orbit.8 Chinese military planners aren’t hesitant to admit that more bases for its navy are in the works. The possible locations are in Pakistan, Cambodia and Equatorial Guinea (in the Atlantic).

 

After signing the security agreement with the Solomon Islands, China started talks with Kiribati and Vanuatu on similar agreements, which would further expand its sphere of influence in the Pacific. The Financial Times reported that China had been in discussions with Kiribati for quite some time and is now expected to push through a deal. China is believed to have initiated talks for a similar agreement with Tonga. The US has reason to worry. Kiribati is just 3,000km away from Hawaii, where the US Indo-Pacific Command is based. In short, China is making efforts to expand the places where it can operate in military or quasi-military ways.

 

Although Kiribati’s foreign minister Michael Foon dismissed the Financial Times report, opposition leader Tessie Eria Lambourne warned against being part of China’s plan. As a reward to Kiribati, China will allow the restarting of a space-tracking station on the island nation. The Chinese stopped work on the station after Kiribati established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2003, but when it switched its loyalties to Beijing in 2019, China promised to restart the project if the security agreement comes through. China also reached agreement with Vanuatu to upgrade an international airport in Luganville, a major US military base during the Second World War.

 

China wants 10 small Pacific nations to endorse a sweeping agreement covering everything from security to fisheries in a game-changing bid by Beijing to wrest control of the region. Beijing is also negotiating to train Pacific police officers to work on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement co-operation. China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries, which would include the Pacific’s lucrative tuna catch, increase co-operation on running the region’s internet network and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classes to indoctrinate the people with Chinese ideology.

 

Wang Yi’s Visit and Australia’s Response

 

With the objective of getting the endorsement of the 10 South Pacific nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi led a 20-person delegation to the region soon after the recent Quad summit ended in Tokyo. In a display of Beijing’s growing military presence in the region, Wang and his team visited the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor on their 10-day trip. The US has traditionally been the area’s major power and therefore expressed concern about China’s intentions. Washington felt that Beijing might use the proposed accords to take advantage of the islands and destabilize the region. In a sign of concern too, Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong headed to Fiji less than a week after her Labor Party won national elections. Wong pledged to increase opportunities for Pacific island citizens to work and migrate to Australia.

 

These developments in Australia’s neighborhood pose a huge challenge to the new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Although Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory letter to Albanese, seen as a relaxation of Beijing’s two-year ban on high-level government contact with Australia, bilateral ties have plummeted to such an extent that such niceties can have no space in Australia’s strategic calculus. Neither can Beijing easily forget Australian legislation targeting Chinese influence in its elections and political discourse. As a result, the door for restoring the old bonhomie seems well shut. Irrespective of the change in the government in Australia, Albanese’s China policy is unlikely to change after China created a series of official and unofficial trade barriers in recent years on a range of Australian exports worth billions of dollars including coal, wine, barley, beef and seafood.

 

China’s larger agenda is to counter America’s Quad strategy, which it perceives as a forum to contain China, and the more recent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which it sees as a counter to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI seeks to link East Asia with Europe and beyond through ports, railways, power plants and other infrastructure, thereby expanding its foreign economic and diplomatic clout. As Xi Jinping seeks a third five-year term as head of the ruling Communist Party later this year, he possibly feels that a foreign-policy victory would help cement his authority and fend off criticism of his handling of the pandemic at home and its economic costs.

 

Although the US has promised to take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands if its agreement with China poses a threat to US or allied interests, the new government in Australia wants Beijing to lift trade sanctions if it seeks to reset their bilateral relationship. That seems to be a will-o-the-wisp. Australia’s main concern is that Beijing was negotiating, or rather trying to impose, its own draft agreement with the Pacific island nations in a hushed and non-transparent process.

 

Wang Yi’s efforts to get the island nations to endorse the pre-written agreement as part of a joint communiqué came to naught when Micronesia’s president, David Panuelo, said his nation would not endorse the plan. He warned that the planned pact would needlessly heighten geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability. Panuelo was concerned that the agreement opens the door for China to own and control the region’s fisheries and communications infrastructure. He called the agreement’s Common Development Vision “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes” and said it “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a world war at worst.” Panuelo was convinced that the communiqué would draw Pacific islands with diplomatic relations with China into Beijing’s orbit, effectively tying the whole of their economies and societies to China.

 

Micronesia is increasingly caught between the competing interests of Washington and Beijing. From China’s perspective, a region-wide agreement on security and trade between China and the Pacific islands would have represented a shift in Beijing’s focus from bilateral relations to dealing with the Pacific on a multilateral basis.

 

As it transpired, Beijing’s strategy backfired. It suffered a rare diplomatic setback when 10 Pacific Island nations deflected its offer of a sweeping trade and security deal. Beijing is unlikely to be overwhelmed by this snub and will continue to make efforts to exert influence over these tiny and far-flung countries. The onus now lies on the US to respond with equal resolve or risk losing ground in a strategically vital region.

 

On the face of it, Wang Yi’s trip was a failure. The leaders of the 10 states were miffed that such a consequential agreement with next to no consultation was being imposed on them. Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa rejected it outright as there had been no prior discussion. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was blunt, alleging that Beijing’s proposal was “geopolitical point-scoring”. For Wang Yi, it was a stunning misfire and a lesson for Beijing in how international diplomacy is conducted where agreement drafts are thoroughly discussed, drafted and redrafted before the broad principles are agreed. None such procedures were followed, exposing Beijing’s arrogance in conducting diplomacy.

 

Reactions

 

Earlier, the former foreign minister in the outgoing Scott Morrison government, Marise Payne, had expressed disappointment and concern about “the lack of transparency” around the agreement. The US was concerned about its allies and felt the establishment of a base in the Solomon Islands by its strategic adversary would significantly degrade Australia and New Zealand’s security, increase the chances of local corruption and heighten the prospect of resource exploitation.

 

Traditionally, Australia has been the islands’ main security partner. On the Solomon Islands’ request, the Morrison government had sent police officers to quell unrest that broke out in November 2021. Although Australia is seen as the head of the Pacific family, it is perceived to be deficient in discharging its security responsibilities for the family members. For quite some time, Australia’s influence on the Solomon Islands appears to have waned. Moreover, Pacific island nations dislike being described as Australia’s “backyard.” The pro-China Sogavare switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019 after he was elected. He expected that Beijing would deliver the infrastructure and support that his country needed. In a swift move, Sogavare signed agreements with Chinese companies to build roads and bridges and reopened one of the country’s old mines. A Chinese company even tried to lease the entire island of Tulagi, but the plan was aborted because of public uproar on the islands of Tulagi and Malaita. Allegations flew fast that Chinese companies paid bribes with bags of cash and promises of kickbacks for senior leaders often made during all-expenses-paid trips to China. This led to violent protests in November, making Sogavare desperate to fast-track the security pact with China.

 

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remarked that it was “one of the most significant security developments” that Australia has seen in decades and was adverse to Australia’s national security interests. Peter Dutton, defense minister in the outgoing Morrison government, was worried that there could be “unsettling influences” in China’s increasing footprint in the South Pacific. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta expressed worries that the pact could destabilize the institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security.

 

China and the Solomon Islands deny that the pact targets any third party. They insist it only complements existing bilateral and multilateral security co-operation mechanisms. Still, it is difficult to trust China because there is always a variance between what it professes and what it delivers. Seen from the Chinese perspective, Beijing suspects the intentions behind the AUKUS security pact involving Australia, the UK and the US or of the Quad, both of which it sees as aimed at containing China. In particular, Beijing sees red in Canberra’s decision to build nuclear-powered submarines and fears that this will be the first step toward becoming nuclear-armed.

 

There is another reason for Australia to be concerned. Some analysts warn that the pact could put a Chinese military base on Australia’s doorstep, which could, in turn, be used to choke Australian supply routes and isolate it from the rest of the world. In this “long game,” analysts caution that Australia needs to ensure the South Pacific is not militarized by anyone.9 The outgoing Morrison government was criticized for not doing more to stop the Solomon Islands from signing the security pact with China. Now the onus lies on the Labor Prime Minister Albanese to correct this wrong.

 

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, remarked that the security pact poses a great military threat to Australia.10 He urged the Australian defense minister to visit the Solomon Islands to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to its security. That proposition seems to be too late now after the China-Solomon Islands security pact and China is not expected to loosen its hold. The pact is seen as a failure of Australia’s foreign policy because it didn’t perceive China’s strategic intent in time. Successive governments overestimated Australia’s influence in the Pacific and underinvested in promoting its own security, despite viewing the region as its “backyard.” The recent submarine project may have come too late, and reversing the process would be harder now than it was before.

 

The defense policy of Australia, released in 2020, set out three fundamental goals. These are to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions from outside against the country’s interests, and respond with credible military force, when required. As an influential strategist, Jennings is critical that Australia failed in all three aims.11 Without grumbling about China’s strategic footprint in its neighborhood, Australia should deploy senior defense officials to Honiara and offer two patrol boats, which are under plan to be built, and base them there in a shared Australia-Solomons facility. Australia needs to take the lead with other Pacific island governments to make a common front to deter China and convince them not to be tempted by Chinese money, lest they lose their sovereignty and become virtual colonies of China. Some optimists feel that the Solomon Islands can still be persuaded to shelve the China deal. Irrespective of the outcome of any such effort, Australia’s foreign minister needs to visit Honiara and discuss with her counterpart this possibility.12 Whether Australia can succeed in such an effort remains to be seen. These are huge challenges for Australian policymakers. For now, the Chinese juggernaut looks unstoppable. The vulnerability of Australia’s security will be exposed if a Chinese military base is established less than 2,000km from its eastern border.

 

How the Solomon Islands Defends its Decision

 

Unperturbed by the concern and criticism expressed by Australia, the US and New Zealand, Prime Minister Sogavare does not think the island nation’s sovereignty is compromised. For him, concerns about a naval base are secondary. The truth, however, is the pact has opened a Pandora’s Box over the geostrategic competition between great powers in the South Pacific. There are fears among citizens that the deal could allow the government to call in the Chinese military for political purposes such as crushing democratic protests. The authorities of Malaita, the most populous province in the country, which did not support the diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China, feel that the pact was targeted at them.

 

Sogavare defended the pact as being directed entirely at the internal security situation. He said it complemented a 2017 security arrangement with Australia, under which Australian peacekeepers were in Honiara when riots broke out in November 2021.13 Australia expressed deep disappointment and feared it would set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific region, while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the pact as “gravely concerning.” A perturbed Sogavare described the backlash as “very insulting.”14

 

Concluding Observations

 

The China-Solomon Islands security pact marks another step toward Beijing’s expanding influence in the region, thereby adding a third flashpoint after the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The enhanced Chinese presence in the South Pacific poses a serious risk to a free and open Indo-Pacific. In particular, the security pact represents one of the gravest Australian diplomatic and intelligence failures in more than half a decade. Although it would be inappropriate to blame either on a particular leader or party, it will be a challenge for the new Labor government to correct the wrong. The accusations from some quarters that Australia’s past failures to meet its obligations as a middle power for the Pacific Island nations paved the way for China to step in needs critical scrutiny.

 

For now, Australia can breathe a sigh of relief that Wang Yi’s visit did not meet its intended outcome. In the typical salami-slicing strategy that China has adopted elsewhere, Wang did sign smaller bilateral agreements such as with Kiribati to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries. Overall, though, one thing is clear: the security dynamics in the South Pacific are heading for a thorough overhaul.

 

In the event that China establishes a naval base in the Solomon Islands following the security pact, it will be necessary for Australia to revamp its defense posture with urgency. In particular, it needs to review its capabilities, readiness, structure and location of its forces so that it can respond to challenges to its national security when they emerge. Australia also needs to review its strategic strike capabilities, including missiles. The plethora of uncertainties emerging from the China-Solomon Islands security pact demand co-ordinated responses from many stakeholders committed to maintaining peace and stability in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

 


Notes

1 Ananth Krishnan, “China, Solomon Islands sign landmark security pact”, The Hindu, April 19, 2022, www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-solomon-islands-sign-landmark-security-pact/article65335863.ece

2 Rajaram Panda, “Djibouti Military Base is a New Step in China’s Maritime Footprint”, Global Asia, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 2017), www.globalasia.org/v12no3/feature/djibouti-military-base-is-a-new-step-in-chinas-maritime-footprint_rajaram-panda

3 Joshua Cartwright, “US delegation warns Solomon Islands prime minister over security pact with China,” South China Morning Post, April 23, 2022, www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/ 3175267/us-delegation-warns-solomon-islands-prime-minister-over?module=hard_link&pgtype=article

4 “Solomon Islands switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan,” China Digital Times, Sept. 12, 2019, chinadigitaltimes.net/2019/09/solomon-islands-switch-diplomatic-allegiance-from-taiwan/

5 Oliver Young, “Solomon Islands and China seek to deepen security partnership, unnerving neighbors,” China Digital Times, March 25, 2022, chinadigitaltimes.net/2022/03/solomon-islands-and-china-seek-to-deepen-security-partnership-unnerving-neighbors/

6 Kate Lyons and Dorothy Wickham, “The deal that shocked the world: inside the China-Solomons security pact,” The Guardian, April 20, 2022, www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/20/the-deal-that-shocked-the-world-inside-the-china-solomons-security-pact

7 Ananth Krishnan, “Explained: Why has the China-Solomon Islands deal became the latest flashpoint between China and the US?” The Hindu, April 24, 2022, www.thehindu.com/news/international/explained- why-has-the-china-solomon-islands-deal-become-the-latest-flashpoint- between-china-and-the-us/article65347803.ece?utm_source=m

8 “Growing ambitions: On China-Solomon Islands pact,” The Hindu, April 22, 2022, www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/growing-ambitions-the-hindu-editorial-on-china-solomon-islands-pact/article65341581.ece

9 Noah Yim, “Explainer: What’s the China-Solomon Islands pact and why does it matter?” Courier Mail, April 21, 2022, www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/explainer-whats-the-chinasolomon-islands-pact-and-why-does-it-matter/news-story/a64aa8a5c9ad59c0ed76f69da2bcd18d

10 Peter Jennings, “Australia can still win Solomon Island over,” The Strategist, April 21, 2022, www.aspistrategist.org.au/ australia-can-still-win-solomon-islands-over/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=Weekly%20The%20Strategist

11 Ibid.

12 Noah Yim, “Explainer: What’s the China-Solomon Islands pact and why does it matter?” Courier Mail, April 21, 2022, www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/explainer-whats-the-chinasolomon-islands-pact-and-why-does-it-matter/news-story/a64aa8a5c9ad59c0ed76f69da2bcd18d

13 David Rising, “Solomon Islands Leader Defends New Security Pact with China”, Military.com, April 20, 2022, www.military.com/daily-news/2022/04/20/solomon-islands-leader-defends-new-security-pact-china.html

14 Chantelle Francis, “Solomon Islands PM ‘insulted’ by Australia, NZ reaction to deal with China”, Courier Mail, March 29, 2022, www.couriermail.com.au/news/world/solomon-islands-pm-insulted-by-australia-nz-reaction-to-deal-with-china/news-story/35f8ef113436080a88ae2d45ea687f90

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