The leak of a draft security deal between China and the Solomon Islands has sparked fears of an increased militarisation of the Pacific. But the news has also raised questions about New Zealand’s approach to the region, Sam Sachdeva reports
Analysis: The spectre of a Chinese military base in the Pacific has long loomed as a potential game-changer as debate about Great Power competition in the region has grown.
Earlier this year, US Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator Kurt Campbell described the Pacific as the part of the world most likely to see a “strategic surprise”, while New Zealand’s 2021 Defence Assessment said the creation of a military base “by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests” would be one of the most threatening developments for the region.
Now, the leak of a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has many – New Zealand included – concerned such an initiative is now closer to reality.
The document, which has reportedly been confirmed as genuine by the Australian government, would give China the ability (according to “its own needs” and with the consent of the Solomon Islands) to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in” the country.
“The relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands,” the agreement adds, while in turn allowing the Solomons to request the use of Chinese police, military personnel “and other law enforcement and armed forces” to help maintain social order and assist with other issues.
News of the draft text came as the Solomon Islands parliament prepared to sit for the first time since riots late last year which targeted Honiara’s Chinatown district, leading to the deaths of three people and up to $91 million of damage.
Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, was among the first to draw attention to the document’s circulation on social media, which she said appeared to be a deliberate leak ahead of the resumption of Parliament.
“If you take it to the full extent of what’s proposed in the draft agreement, potentially basing warships and other military assets…in the Solomon Islands…that excludes the ability of other countries like Australia or New Zealand or the US, potentially, to transit through those places, to have the same access.”
– Mihai Sora
Powles told Newsroom the agreement appeared to have been under discussion for some time, and had to be seen in the context of both last year’s riots and the Solomons’ diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019 (the catalyst for the November protests).
“These kinds of security agreements, whilst this one is particularly unique in terms of its ambiguity and ambitiousness, this is part of a wider development programme with China – the Solomon Islands government has actually said that.”
One of the most concerning aspects of the draft agreement was the lack of clarity about which Chinese security personnel could be sent to the country and exactly what tasks they could perform, while the reference to “logistical replenishment” could set the stage for a base with military uses.
“You’d start with a refuelling depot, which would require security personnel to guard it, and that could then morph into a larger logistical supply base.”
Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat to the Solomon Islands and research fellow at the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands programme, told Newsroom he had similar worries about the breadth of the deal, as well as a clause that appeared to prevent the Solomons government from being transparent about the agreement’s provisions without Chinese agreement.
While the Solomon Islands had made it clear it did not view relationships with larger countries as mutually exclusive, the “zero-sum nature” of security arrangements meant they were different to economic partnerships or other bilateral deals.
“If you take it to the full extent of what’s proposed in the draft agreement, potentially basing warships and other military assets…in the Solomon Islands, whether as a permanent military base, or just as a recurring presence, that excludes the ability of other countries like Australia or New Zealand or the US, potentially, to transit through those places, to have the same access.
“You can derive strategic benefits just by locating things in the Solomons and pointing them at Australia, pointing them at New Zealand, you can gather information, you can monitor the state.”
The international response to the draft agreement has been strong: Australian leader Scott Morrison said there was “great concern across the Pacific family”, while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was similarly blunt at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday.
“We’re working very hard to support our Pacific neighbours and our Pacific family to respond to whatever security, defence training or capability arrangements that they may have needed support for, and we have done that for years.
“The question that has to be asked is, what gaps remained that weren’t being fulfilled? I can’t see any. And so that then raises a question over what the intention is with these arrangements.”
But Powles said there was some reason for New Zealand to rethink its own approach to the Pacific, rooted in colonial relationships, where it had focused on Polynesian states while leaving Australia to focus on Melanesian nations like the Solomon Islands.
“It hasn’t been a helpful approach – in fact, New Zealand demonstrated in Bougainville the positive role that it could take in crisis management and conflict mediation in the 1990s in a way that Australia simply could not, and did not.”
Sora said Australia would also be reevaluating its Pacific approach following news of the China agreement, broadening beyond harder-edged defence issues and placing a greater emphasis on “soft power levers” like visas and economic integration.
The United States, which has expressed concern itself at the news, would need to join its partners in taking action, former US diplomat and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Australia chair Charles Edel told Newsroom.
“We’ve seen this pattern before—where Beijing denies its intentions as it presses forward. Regardless of what happens with the Solomon Islands, that dynamic is likely to persist until we become more proactive and regain a sense of initiative and urgency in this important region.”
Exactly how the final version of any agreement will compare to the leaked draft remains to be seen: while Powles believed it was likely to be “significantly tightened up and potentially watered down”, Sora said there had not yet been any indication from the Solomon Islands that it intended to back away from the strategic implications.
“If there was also Chinese military and police personnel providing security assistance, then you could understand that Australia and New Zealand would be very cautious at deploying personnel into an operating environment like that.”
– Anna Powles
In a statement issued last week, the Solomon Islands government said it was “working to broaden its security and development cooperation with more countries”.
“Broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.”
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, seen as driving his country’s closer alignment with China, delivered a fiery defence of the talks in a speech to Parliament on Tuesday, saying it was “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.
If domestic tensions do flare up, New Zealand may be called on to assist. An initial deployment of Defence Force personnel and police after the November riots was scaled down in January and had been due to finish this week; while Ardern was unable to confirm whether the deployment would be extended when asked by Newsroom on Monday, the following day Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced an extension until at least May 31 (a decision it’s understood was made before the draft security deal entered the public domain).
But Powles said a larger concern would be whether such cooperation would even be possible once any deal with China entered into force.
“If there was also Chinese military and police personnel providing security assistance, then you could understand that Australia and New Zealand would be very cautious at deploying personnel into an operating environment like that, where there was a lack of clarity, potential ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication.”