China-Solomon islands Security Treaty
The Dragon Making Inroads into the South Pacific
China confirmed the signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands when Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on April 19 that Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Solomon Islands counterpart, Jeremiah Manele “officially signed a framework agreement on security cooperation recently.”
In 2012, shortly after taking office, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that “the vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States.” The comment was made at a time when Washington was developing its “pivot” or “rebalance” policies in the Asia-Pacific out of concerns about China’s potential to create a sphere of influence in the region that could reach as far as the Pacific Islands. At the time, Beijing’s Pacific policies had been predominantly marked by economic engagement, including via the Belt and Road Initiative, rather than overt strategic considerations.
Since then, however, much has changed. The de facto diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan, which discouraged both parties from swaying each other’s allies, faded quickly when Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016. Three years later, the Chinese government succeeded in convincing two Pacific Island states, Kiribati and Solomon Islands, to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s pro-China stances also show how large Beijing’s growing influence over the tiny Pacific state has become.
In March this year, China’s political designs in the Pacific were further revealed when a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked, including provisions for stationing Chinese military and police personnel in the island state and allowing Chinese vessels to replenish supplies there.
About the deal
The final document the countries signed has not been released to the public but a draft document – leaked in March by political opponents of Sogavare – indicated that the Solomon Islands would have the ability to request police or military personnel from China to maintain social order or help with disaster relief, while Chinese naval ships would be permitted to dock for resupply and crew transfers. Moreover, China may be able to place military equipment and personnel station in the country with the government’s consent.
In essence, it provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.
Officials from both sides have suggested that the security agreement is needed to ensure stability after several days of violent unrest in November aimed at Chinese interests as well as the Sogavare government. In the draft, almost anything tied to China, from its citizens to small businesses to infrastructure to stadiums — like the one a Chinese contractor is building in the capital, Honiara — could be enough to spur a request for Chinese troops.
Such provisions are supported by Prime Minister Sogavare’s explanation to the country’s parliament whereby he said that the agreement with Beijing was necessary to deal with the Solomon Islands’ ‘internal security situation’. “We intend to beef up and strengthen our police capability to deal with any future instability by properly equipping the police to take full responsibility for the country’s security responsibilities, in the hope we will never be required to invoke any of our bilateral security arrangements,” he said.
Experts believe it to be a big deal because it shows China’s success in securing its influence over the region, which has long been more friendly towards the Western alliance.
Response of the US and its allies
The pact is being seen as Beijing’s latest power play in a struggle for influence in the region, with the United States, Australia and New Zealand expressing concern over what they regard as a lack of transparency over the agreement and the security implications of more Chinese military forces in the Pacific.
1. The United States
While the White House initially remained quiet on the issue, it did issue a statement on April 19 whereby it stated that the United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia are concerned by the security pact. “Officials from the four countries represented also shared concerns about a proposed security framework between the Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink, who was a part of a high-level US delegation – led by US President’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell – which visited the Solomon Islands a day after Honiara confirmed the signing of the agreement with Beijing, has criticized the deal as it “showed a complete lack of transparency” and said the US would respond accordingly to any attempt by Beijing at establishing military presence in the Pacific island country. He refused to rule out military action against Solomon Islands if it were to allow China to establish a military base there, saying that the security deal between the countries presented “potential regional security implications” for the US and other allies.
Australia, which is the Solomon Islands’ biggest donor of aid and has security ties with it, had tried to press its neighbour to step away from Beijing. It has had a security agreement with Honiara since 2017 that is why it is the most vocal critic of the agreement.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, , who is in the midst of a general election campaign, said that the signing of the pact indicated the “intense pressure” from China felt by Pacific island nations. He said that his country had “the same red line” as the US when it came to China’s involvement in Solomon Islands.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in a joint statement with Zed Seselja, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said while Australia respected Honiara’s “right to make sovereign decisions,” it was “deeply disappointed” with the China pact. “We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region,” the statement said, adding that Canberra was seeking “further clarity” on the terms of the agreement, and its consequences
Defence Minister Peter Dutton used his Anzac Day address to declare: “Australia should prepare for war,” claiming that China was “on a very deliberate course at the moment.”
The opposition Labor Party, which hopes to unseat Morrison’s coalition, described it as the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.” Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong noted that Australia had ignored warnings from Wale as early as August last year about the potential security pact.
3. New Zealand
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that her country is gravely concerned about the possible militarization of the Pacific following a decision by the Solomon Islands government to form a security partnership with China. “We see such acts as a potential militarization of the region and also see very little reason in terms of the Pacific security for such a need and such a presence,” Ardern said.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said that Auckland had made clear to both the Solomon Islands and China its grave concerns at the pact’s potential to destabilise the Pacific region’s security.
China maintains that the pact is in line with international law and international practices. It does not target any third party, nor does it have any military purpose. In this regard, no one has the right to interfere. The US and Australia conspire to urge the Solomon Islands to “consider not signing the agreement” is a gross interference in the Solomon Islands’ internal affairs and a huge insult to the integrity of the Pacific island country. The Chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic Senator, Bob Menendez, called on the people’s right to choose but he just did not allow the Solomon Islands to choose freely. In their eyes, the Solomon Islands are only free to choose to be a vassal of the US and Australia or be isolated from the world.
Chinese authorities assert that before China strengthens its cooperation with regional countries, including the Solomon Islands, the US has paid little attention to the South Pacific, leaving the region mainly to its deputy sheriff Australia.
The assistance of the US to the Solomon Islands has been quite limited for nearly 30 years after the US embassy in the Solomon Islands was closed in 1993, but it was announced in February that the US was reopening of the embassy. The reason for the reopening is obvious: The US now desperately needs the Pacific Island country to stop China’s presence in the country and the region.
Washington’s current interests in the South Pacific region are heavily military-focused. The US military plans to expand military bases in the region, and even deploy intermediate-range missiles in countries like Palau. This is undoubtedly, dragging the South Pacific region into the geopolitical game of the great powers, threatening regional security and peace.
But Washington may find it not so easy to disrupt the China-Solomon Islands security cooperation. First, the Solomon Islands knows the security pact is in its interest. The cooperation with China, particularly in police affairs and law-enforcement, can ensure the stability and development of the Pacific nation.
Moreover, the Solomon Islands should realize it is under the special attention of Washington because the US wants to use it as a pawn to contain China. That is why the US is offering some “carrots” to the Pacific nation.
However, history shows that such benefits are often lip service or extremely costly. And once the Solomon Islands is seen as strategically not so useful in the eyes of Washington, perhaps not even a bit of “carrot” will be promised to the Pacific Island nation.
China’s role in the South Pacific
The new agreement comes as Beijing is stepping up political, economic and security ties with South Pacific countries.
Many countries in the region have established economic deals with China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. While many islands are small and mostly impoverished, they offer access to huge areas of ocean.
The Solomon Islands first struck a diplomatic deal with Beijing in 2019 and subsequently ended its 36-year diplomatic relationship with Taipei.
Beijing’s allies in the Pacific are encouraged to adopt the one-China policy, and cut official diplomatic relationships with Taiwan.
Not everyone in the Solomons was happy about closer ties with Beijing. Late last year, violence erupted in response to Sogavare’s switch of official ties from Taipei to Beijing. What started as a peaceful protest by a pro-Taiwan group turned into riots that left several shops in Honiara’s Chinatown looted and hundreds of Chinese citizens homeless.
Under its existing security agreement with Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, Sogavare requested troops and police to help quell protests.
Soon after, China sent police to train local riot control forces for the first time.
In December last, Sogavare narrowly defeated a no-confidence vote.
The writer is a member of staff.