A chain of tiny islands located in the South Pacific is at the center of a major diplomatic kerfuffle between China and the West, with the US and its flagging allies Beijing’s growing control over the strategically vital Indo-Pacific region.
This month, China and the Solomon Islands finalized a controversial security agreement, an early draft of which was leaked online in March. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insists that the agreement was necessary to deal with the islands’ “internal security situation”. But Pacific countries including Australia, New Zealand and the US have raised concerns about the agreement — negotiated in secret late last year — potentially leading to Chinese military presence in the islands.
The agreement is likely to have far-reaching consequences for much of the world, particularly since several shipping lanes connecting the US and its allies run through the region.
Why the Solomon Islands matter
With a population of less than seven lakh, the chain of hundreds of islands is located near Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean — a politically volatile region that has been at the center of a long-running diplomatic power struggle between the West and China. It was here, in the capital city of Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, that some of the fiercest battles of World War II were fought between the US and Japanese troops.
Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country was rife with ethnic unrest and military conflict between several armed groups, ultimately resulting in a coup that brought Sogavare to power for the first time.
With its economy in a state of near-collapse and ethnic still rampant, the Pacific Nation was forced to call in reinforcements to stabilise state affairs. In 2003, a multinational Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), led by Australia, was established. As part of the mission, troops were from Australia and New Zealand and a state of stability was eventually restored. But political instability continues to persist, making it difficult for new governments to stick around. Despite attempts by Sogavare to expel the mission, RAMSI managed to remain in the country for well over a decade.
Just last year, Australia came to the rescue once again when the nation was rocked by a wave of anti-government protesters. The country sent peacekeeping forces to quell riots in Honiara, where protestors stormed parliament in a bid to topple PM Sogavare. The two nations formalized a bilateral security treaty in 2017, which allows Australian troops to be in the island nation in the event of an emergency.
There have been growing concerns about Sogavare’s closeness with China in recent years. Soon after he was elected prime minister once again in 2019, he cut the country’s long-standing diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China. The decision, widely known as ‘The Switch’, is said to have been one of the first major indications of China’s expanding influence in the region, which was traditionally an ally of the US and Australia.
Sogavare’s decision was not popular — several province leaders rejected the switch, and it was also one factor contributing to the riots last year. Some experts have said that the prime minister timed the signing of the security pact in a way that he will now have China to lean on if such protests break out ahead of the upcoming elections, which he has been trying to delay by rewriting the constitution, New York Times reported.
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What is in the Solomon Islands-China pact?
According to a leaked draft of the agreement, Chinese warships will be permitted to dock on the islands. Beijing will now also be able to send security forces “to assist in maintaining social order”.
“We intend to beef up and strengthen our police ability to deal with any future instability by properly equipping the police to take full responsibility of the country’s security responsibilities, in the hope we will never be required to invoke any of our bilateral security arrangements,” Sogavare explained in Parliament last week, stressing that the deal was “guided by our national interests”. He has denied claims that China plans to set up a military base in the country in the long term.
What’s in it for China?
The fierce competition between the West and China has only escalated in the region in recent years, prompting the Western alliance to form a military pact called AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) to counter Beijing in the Pacific.
With the new security agreement, China and its army have a foothold in the island nation, which could be significant for blocking vital shipping lanes.
The agreement could also potentially help China intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora face threats in the region. As per the draft, a threat to nearly anything linked to China — from its citizens, to small businesses — could be enough to bring in Chinese troops.
Over the years, China has entered security and economic pacts with several countries, including Djibouti, Pakistan and Cambodia. China pumps in funds for infrastructural development, while also gaining access to several vital ports.
So why is the West unhappy?
The agreement has renewed fear among Pacific countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US. Australia in particular has been very critical of the new security patch. Australian PM Scott Morrison claimed that the pact pointed towards “intense pressure” from China in the Pacific island nation.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to stability in our region,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a joint statement with Zed Seselja, Minister for International, Development and the Pacific .
In a joint statement, officials from Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan said they “shared concerns about the security framework and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Just last week, a team of top US officials visited Solomon Islands and met with Sogavare to discuss their concerns. “Prime minister Sogavare indicated that in the Solomon Islands’ view, the agreement they’ve concluded has domestic implications. But we’ve made clear that there are potential regional security implications of the agreement not just for ourselves, but for allies and partners across the region,” said Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrin