China-Solomon Islands’ security pact
The recent announcement of a new security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has rattled leaders in Washington, Canberra, and other Indo-Pacific capitals who fear it opens the door to a Chinese military presence in the southern Pacific. In April 2022, China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Beijing had signed a minimum five-year security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The deal, which Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare described as a ‘treaty’ to the Solomon Islands Parliament, has not been made public. But it is thought to be close to a version leaked from within the Solomon Islands government in late March.
According to the leaked draft of the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, Beijing has agreed to send armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement forces to assist Honiara in “maintaining social order and preventing future unrest like the riots in April 2006 and November 2021, protecting people’s lives and property, and providing humanitarian assistance.” The draft text also states that China, with the consent of Honiara, can use its forces to protect Chinese personnel and projects, and for its ships to stopover and carry out “logistical replenishment” in the Solomon Islands. While firmly denying that the agreement allows for a Chinese naval base, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has characterised the new security pact with Beijing as necessary for countering the “hard internal threats” facing his country. Sogavare has made the case that the Solomon Islands’ existing bilateral security treaty with Australia, which was most recently activated last year following anti-government protests in the capital, has proven “inadequate.”
Prior to the signing of the pact on March 30, 2022, China sent nine police officers to Solomon Islands in January 2022. They provided training to the Solomon Islands police force on public management, riot response and other tactical programs. The training was questioned by some opposition parliamentarians concerned about the impact on the country’s police, which have traditionally been trained by Australia and New Zealand. Another task of the Chinese police team is to provide diplomatic security to its embassy and offer security advice to Chinese companies and migrants.
More broadly, the growth of China’s engagement with Solomon Islands has been impressive since the latter switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in September 2019. Less than three years later, the relationship covers a wide range of areas such as high-level meetings, infrastructure support, sister-city relations (for example between Honiara city and Jiangmen city in Guangdong), medical team and COVID-19 assistance. The Chinese embassy has also donated materials and equipment like diesel fuel, agricultural contractors, and sewing machines to improve its relations with Malaita province, a place that has strong support for Taiwan. The two countries are seemingly still in a honeymoon period.
The primary driver behind the agreement is China’s long-term strategy of displacing the United States as the predominant power in the Western Pacific. It includes a clear ambition to break out of the maritime encirclement posed by the ‘first island chain’, which is composed mostly of ‘offshore’ Asian US allies and partners, to gain a foothold somewhere in the scattered archipelagos beyond. This also serves Beijing’s immediate objective of taking over Taiwan, by applying diplomatic and military pressure from within the ‘second island chain’.
The Solomon Islands offer a prime location from which to exert control over surrounding sea and air space, potentially threatening longitudinal and latitudinal lines of communication between and among the US and its Pacific allies, including Australia. Indeed, both China and Solomon Islands have denied the PLAN’s naval base there but the chain of actions are weightier than that of statements in geopolitics. A Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands could be used to interdict military reinforcement for Taiwan. Even an isolated People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facility in the Solomons used for intelligence gathering and presence patrols would complicate defence planning for Australia and, to some extent, the United States.
It seems China’s secret security pact with Solomon Island is a befitting response to recent Trilateral security pact in Indo-pacific, AUKUS by three English countries namely Australia, United Kingdom and United states by keeping in mind to counter Chinese influence in the region.
After several years of sustained bilateral tensions with China, the security agreement with the Solomons can only confirm Beijing as a hostile actor in Canberra’s view. The deal is being treated as a massive setback to Australia’s strategic position, as well as to its self-perception as the predominant security provider in the Southwest Pacific. Preventing a hostile military presence from lodging in its maritime approaches is akin to Australia’s version of a ‘core’ national interest. Australia has found it impossible to prevent China from making deep in-roads across the Southwest Pacific in terms of influence. The main regional multilateral grouping, the Pacific Island Forum, is split, providing China with further opportunities to ‘divide and conquer’.
Alarmed by the security pact, the United States is expected to enhance their diplomatic, aid, and economic relations with Solomon Islands in the near future. Back in 2019, the Solomon Islands parliamentary taskforce established to provide advice to the government on whether to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing criticized the United States for its neglect of economic development in Solomon Islands. The US proposal to re-open its embassy in Honiara will play a big role in facilitating this engagement process.
In the short to medium term, traditional powers and other Pacific Island countries will watch closely whether China will seek to build a military base in Solomon Islands. The U.S. government has warned that they will “respond accordingly” if this occurs. The Australian government refers to such a base establishment as a red line. No doubt, a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands will greatly increase China’s military projection power in a region regarded by traditional powers as their sphere of influence. It will further the tensions between existing power and rising power.