Solomon Islands-China Security Pact: Why Australia and the United States Worry So Much
Solomon Islands-China Security Pact: Why Australia and the United States Worry So Much

Solomon Islands-China Security Pact: Why Australia and the United States Worry So Much

As China put it, it was a mutually beneficial agreement aimed at creating peace and stability in the Solomon Islands, a country with a population of less than half of Manhattan that was shaken by violent protests last year.

But other countries saw it differently.

For Australia, New Zealand and the United States, it was Beijing’s latest game of power in an ongoing battle for influence in the Pacific – a move that some claim threatens the very stability of the region.

Speculation had grown over what would be in the deal after an unconfirmed leaked draft of the deal surfaced online last month.

Some were concerned that the deal could see Canberra’s worst fears realized: a Chinese military base being built in the Solomon Islands, a first for China in the Pacific. Australia and the United States were so concerned that they were sending delegations to the Pacific in hopes of halting the agreement.

But China announced that the deal had been signed on Tuesday before the U.S. delegation even had a chance to land.

Although the details of the final deal have not been made public, some spectators say the deal makes Australia less secure and threatens to further destabilize the Solomon Islands, where there have already been backlash over the government’s close relationship with Beijing.

But beyond the political and security fears, experts say the situation is a reality check for Australia and its partners, that they need to adopt a different approach to China’s growing influence.

“Australia and the United States are still not awake to the reality of Chinese power and how we want to deal with it,” said Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, who previously worked as a senior adviser to the Australian Secretary of Defense and prime minister. “In both Canberra and Washington, they think we can somehow get China to disappear, put China back in its box.”

How the covenant arose

Concerns over the pact had been swirling for weeks.

According to a leaked draft document – which CNN has not been able to verify – the Solomon Islands would have the opportunity to ask Chinese police or military personnel to maintain social order or help with disaster relief.

The deal appeared to relate to violent protests that shook the country’s capital Honiara in November last year, and which were triggered in part by anger over the government’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan and change allegiance to Beijing.

Protesters targeted parts of Honiaras Chinatownwhich prompted Sogavare to request assistance from Australia under a bilateral security treaty signed by the two countries in 2017.

From the Solomon Islands perspective, the separate agreement with China may have appealed as it allowed the country to diversify its security conditions and exploit political views in the region, said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who hails from the Solomon Islands.

But others worry that the deal could be the first phase of a larger plan – to establish a permanent Chinese military presence on the islands.

The reaction to Tuesday’s the announcement of a signed pact went quickly.

In a joint statement, the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand said the pact poses “serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted on Wednesday that the agreement does not include permission for China to establish a military base, and urged critics to respect the country’s sovereign interests. “We entered into an agreement with China with open eyes, guided by our national interests,” he said.

The Chinese national flag is waving outside the Chinese Embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, April 1, 2022.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stressed that the “open, transparent and inclusive” agreement is not “targeted at any third party.”

But despite the assurances, there are still few details on what has been signed – and spectators say that in itself is worrying.

“There’s still a lot we do not know about what the agreement itself actually says, and also about what it will lead to,” said White from the Australian National University.

Political scientist Kabutaulaka said he believed it was unlikely that China would build a conventional military base in the Solomon Islands because it would create a lot of “negative publicity” for Beijing, inside and outside the island nation.

But experts say that does not mean that China does not want a military presence on the island – of some kind.

If China has the ability to bring ships and military personnel to the Solomon Islands as the unverified draft document, then there is no real need for a physical military base, Kabutaulaka said.

Why China is challenging Australia for influence over the Pacific Islands

Mihai Sora, an expert on Australian foreign policy in the Pacific at the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, pointed to Djibouti as a country that signed a security deal that developed into a naval base that Beijing refers to as a logistics facility.

The prospect of a Chinese base in the Pacific is worrying for the United States, which also has military bases in the region, which are becoming more strategically important as China expands its military presence in the South China Sea. It is also worrying for Australia, which is potentially facing the prospect of Chinese ships docking not far from home – the Solomon Islands are about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Australia’s northeast coast.

“It is probably true that this would mean that Australia is less secure as a result of this agreement,” Kabutaulaka said.

But, White says, a Chinese military base in the small nation will only become a real problem for Australia during any potential conflict with China. The importance of any base depends on how well Australia manages its relationship with China – a relationship that has become more and more filled with recent years.

“Practically … I do not think it does nearly as much damage to Australia’s security as many other people do,” White said. “It’s a significant problem if we’re in a major war.”

Soldiers from the Australian Army speak to locals during a community engagement patrol through Honiara on 27 November 2021.

What the future brings

The lack of public detail about what is in the pact is not only worrying for Solomon Islands international partners. Inside the small nation, uncertainty about what it contains has already given rise to criticism.

“It’s clear to me that the vast majority of ordinary Salomon islanders do not want a base here, or even this agreement. A majority do not want China here at all in the first place,” the nation’s opposition leader, Matthew Wale. told the Australian Strategic Policy Institutes The Strategist.

Some have suggested that the deal itself could exacerbate tensions between those who support closer China ties and those who do not.

“The discourse on geopolitical competition creates divisions that can become disturbing in the domestic market,” Kabutaulaka said.

“There is also a need for the international community, and in particular for the Solomon Islands, to look at the challenges internally that created the kind of thing we saw in November last year, which in turn created the need for the Solomon Islands to sign the security agreement with China.”

This Pacific Island province is so frustrated with China's presence that it's pushing for independence

These challenges include economic inequality between islanders, with some taking their anger out on Chinese companies they see as a symbol of closer ties to the mainland.

But the agreement also sends a much bigger message: that the approaches of Australia and its allies in the region are not working.

Australia has long spoken out about the idea of ​​the “Pacific family”. But according to White, Australia pays little attention to the Pacific unless there are security issues. And more than that, Australia and its allies are still stuck in the past, imagining that China’s power can be minimized and that these countries can remain the dominant powers in the region, he said.

“More and more over the last few years, Australia has found itself moving into a position where our approach to managing China’s progress is to try to stop it from happening,” he said. “It’s not going to work. Australia needs to learn to live with Chinese power – and that includes Chinese expanded influence in the Southwest Pacific.”

“It’s just a challenge for us to lift our game to maintain our influence there – and that’s something we should do anyway.”

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