Australia must prepare for war, declared Peter Dutton, the defence minister, after the Solomon Islands’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, signed a security pact with Beijing.
The agreement, Beijing’s first-known bilateral security agreement in the region, allows for Chinese military personnel and warships to be on the Pacific Island nation, which is only 1,200 miles from Australia and lies on key shipping lanes in the Pacific Ocean. The Solomons severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2019, switching recognition to China after Beijing reportedly offered $500m in aid. Four of the last 14 countries to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan are in the South Pacific.
A draft of the agreement, leaked on social media, states that ‘China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands’. It also refers to allowing armed Chinese police and the ‘forces of China’ to be deployed to maintain ‘social order’, and protect ‘the safety of Chinese personnel’ and ‘major projects in the Solomon Islands’. Particulars of the agreement are believed to be known to only a few people, according to a senior US official, who expressed concern that Sogavare had stated publicly he would ‘only share the details with China’s permission’.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the ‘potential militarisation of the region’ was ‘gravely concerning’, while David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said he feared the pact could put Pacific islands ‘at the epicentre of a future confrontation’ between China and the US. Australia’s Lt Gen Greg Bilton admitted that if China had warships in Solomon Islands, it would ‘change the calculus’ for Australia’s military. The commander of the US Pacific fleet, Admiral Samuel Paparo, warned of ‘the potential of conflict within our region within a couple of years because of the incredible unpredictability of events.’
Dr Anna Powles, of Massey University, told Radio New Zealand Pacific there were questions about the agreement’s references to ‘maintaining social order’, the role of armed police, and ‘other law enforcement and armed forces’. She noted the ‘lack of transparency’ and said the clause stating that information could only be released by mutual agreement suggested an apparent intent to control public information.
Sogavare dismissed critics of the deal in a speech to Solomon Islands’ parliament, saying there was ‘no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base’ and it was ‘very insulting … to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs’. He insisted that the existing security agreement with Australia remained in place, adding: ‘We need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners, and what is wrong with that?’
However, Matthew Wale, the Solomon Islands’ opposition leader, said he feared the ‘very general, overarching, vague’ agreement could be used for anything and was ‘all about political survival’ for Sogavare. ‘It has nothing to do with the national security of Solomon Islands,’ he said. He also told ABC television that he was disappointed Australia did not act sooner to stop the deal, saying he warned the high commissioner about it last year.
Beijing played down the accord, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman dismissing western speculation as ‘groundless’, and insisting: ‘It does not have any military overtones.’ But the country’s role in Solomon Islands has long been a source of tension. Last November, more than 1,000 protesters set parts of parliament alight and attacked Chinese-owned shops in protest against closer ties with Beijing. China asked to send an armed ‘security detail’, leaked documents show, though the Solomons’ government dismissed this as ‘fake news’.
Police used teargas on angry crowds that massed near Chinatown in the capital, Honiara, after Sogavare was re-elected for the fourth time in April 2019. In September of that year, as Sogavare switched recognition from Taiwan to China, it was also announced that Chinese companies would build and control power plants, a port, roads, rail and bridges on Guadalcanal, the main island, as part of an $825m deal to reopen an abandoned mine. There was also looting and arson attacks on Chinese-owned businesses in 2006 after ethnic Chinese and the Taiwanese government were thought to have helped fund the unpopular prime minister Snyder Rini, who allegedly bribed MPs to vote for him.
The role of China is no more popular now. An opinion poll carried out last year, on which countries the Solomon Islands should be diplomatically aligned with or receive aid from, found 91% preferred to be allied with ‘liberal democratic countries’ with only 9% answering ‘China’, while 79% said the Solomons should not take aid from China compared with 21% who answered ‘Yes’.
Though New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, stressed ‘why it’s so important for the Solomons to provide a level of transparency’, the deal has made the islands’ politics more opaque. In an ominous article for the Guardian, Dorothy Wickham said she had never experienced such a ‘blackout’ in 35 years as a journalist. ‘The government has refused to release the text of the deal. They have also refused to give interviews … Sources outside Solomon Islands are afraid to say anything too strong,’ she said. ‘The China security treaty has changed the political landscape, and tested the Solomon Islands government’s commitment to a free press. We now watch to see if it affects other important institutions here.’
Amid all the bellicose rhetoric – much of it coming from the Australian defence minister Dutton, who has spoken of China’s ‘incredibly aggressive’ tactics and likened events to the 1930s – some analysts see the crux of it as the longstanding tension between the two main islands of the Solomons archipelago: Guadalcanal and Malaita. The former is home to the capital and more developed than its neighbour, though Malaita has the larger population. ‘For a long time there hasn’t been the level of investment in Malaita, in terms of infrastructure. To this day, most of the roads in Malaita are unpaved,’ said James Batley, former Australian high commissioner in Honiara. ‘It hasn’t received the benefits that it might expect, given its population and its weight in the country.’
The prime focus for this resentment has been ‘Asian businesses’ and ‘Asian donors’ and their ‘disproportionate influence’ on politicians, he said. This tension comes to a head in the acrimonious relationship between Sogavare and Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, who promised to hold a referendum on independence for the island after the federal government’s realignment from Taiwan to China.
Speaking after the unrest erupted late last year, Jonathan Pryke, of the Lowy Institute in Australia, said it had been driven by the same factors behind what are known as ‘the Tensions’, which resulted in Australian-led peacekeepers being deployed in Solomon Islands from 2003 until 2017. ‘We should be very careful not to overstate the role geopolitics has had in this unrest,’ he said. ‘It’s driven by all these domestic issues of inter-island tension, a lack of economic opportunities, poverty and youth unemployment.’
Looking beyond these geopolitical tensions were the Pacific Elders Voice group, whose members include former leaders of the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu. ‘The primary security threat to the Pacific is climate change’, they insisted, not strategic considerations. One commentator said that if Australia really wanted ‘to bolster security in the Pacific and to firm up its position as a trusted partner there’, then it needed to ‘listen to its neighbours and act on the climate crisis’.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.