The Solomon Islands may now be a fulcrum on which Western historical commitments and China’s rising influence in the Pacific are delicately balanced. Western initiatives to stabilise that balance are needed now as never before, writes Stephen Hoadley.
Comment: In strong language almost without precedent, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on March 28 described a provisional security agreement by the Solomon Islands with China as “gravely concerning”. Her Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta followed up with a warning that the agreement “risks destabilising current institutions and arrangements” and asserted “our strong condemnation” to such arrangements by outside powers that don’t share New Zealand’s or Pacific Islands’ values. Her Australian counterpart voiced similar disapprobation.
Solomon Islands Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare reacted by dismissing Western concerns as over-reaction, paternalism, and interference, sentiments reiterated publicly by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson. Both denied that China would be establishing a military base in the Solomon Islands.
It is beyond doubt that Sogavare’s government, as sovereign, has every right to make agreements of any kind with any partner any time it chooses. But not all agreements are equal in political prudence, management of risk, popular legitimacy or ethics in aim and execution.
Previous agreements by Sogavare’s predecessors since independence with New Zealand and Australia to facilitate diplomatic relations and deliver aid projects, and to deploy the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) to restore order in 2003 and the International Security Assistance Force (SIAF) in 2021, were welcomed without controversy. So too was London’s decision to establish a new diplomatic post in Solomon Islands, accompanied by modest economic aid initiatives, manifesting the UK’s new post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ vision.
But the Solomons’ warming relations with China generally, and new draft security agreement specifically, have stirred unease in Wellington and Canberra … and as far away as Washington. The Biden Administration has decided to open a diplomatic post in Honiara, and to initiate an American equivalent to New Zealand’s Pacific Reset and Australia’s Pacific Step Up. Washington will boost diplomatic attention and economic aid worth up to USD$1 billion to the Pacific island region over the coming decade.
In accordance with Biden’s new US Indo-Pacific Security Strategy, unveiled in February 2022, the US aspires not to fight or change China but rather to shape the strategic environment in America’s favour. This entails competing more effectively with China … diplomatically and economically and ideologically as well as militarily. It’s a 21st Century version of winning hearts and minds, now called ‘soft power’.
From the Solomon Islands’ perspective, however, the initiatives by New Zealand, Australia and the US come with unwelcome strings attached. These are expectations of political legitimacy, administrative transparency, and fiscal probity. China attaches no such strings. Its only expectations are loyalty to the One China Principle (ostracising Taiwan) and physical access for China’s people and projects. The former was demonstrated in 2019 when the Solomons switched diplomatic representation from the Republic of China on Taiwan to the Republic of China in Beijing. The latter was demonstrated not only by China’s opening of an embassy and commencement of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects but also by Solomon Islands’ permission for China to send aircraft to evacuate Chinese nationals at risk during the Honiara riots of 2003 and 2021.
Furthermore, China appears to have deeper pockets than all of the Western partners put together, and to be willing to open those pockets to Pacific Island governments with minimal negotiation, delay, or oversight. A case in point is China’s bankrolling of the Constituencies Development Fund. This infusion of Chinese aid allowed Sogavare to allocate cash to selected MPs who, not coincidently, voted against a motion of no confidence in Sogavare’s government in December 2021. The Malaita-based opposition led by Daniel Suidani and Mathew Wale favoured continued diplomatic relations with, and aid projects from, the Republic of China on Taiwan. They were first outvoted and then unjustly blamed for fomenting the 2021 Honiara riots and arson attacks against Chinese-owned shops.
From a Western perspective, then, the draft security agreement by the Solomons government is seen as a quid pro quo for generous aid from China. But that aid passes not through the Treasury and Ministry of Rural Development but through the Office of the Prime Minister and, some would say, through the pockets of the prime minister and his inner circle of supporters. In the view of critics, China’s unaudited aid encourages bribery and corruption.
The draft security agreement is open-ended, allowing China to send armed forces and police to protect not only its nationals but also its assets and aid projects. Few parliamentary or administrative guidelines, processes, or limits are specified in the draft; all military and police access arrangements appear to be negotiable between Prime Minister Sogavare and the authorities in China.
Of particular concern to Wellington, Canberra, and Washington is the prospect of a permanent on-shore China security establishment, in short, a quasi-military base. Such has been mooted not only in Solomon Islands but also in Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. It has become a near reality in Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Kenya and a full-blown reality in Djibouti.
Analysts anticipate that China will begin with a Solomon Islands facility to support China’s vast, subsidised, and semi-militarised fishing fleet in the South Pacific. This facility can be expanded incrementally and clandestinely for dual use, that is, the ability to support PLA Navy deployments with fuel, supplies, reserve personnel and weapons, and to make possible the gathering of real-time signals and human intelligence on Western defence movements. If so, such a base would at best further threaten fish stocks and at worse alter the balance of power in the Southern Pacific region in China’s favour.
If China’s intent, like that of the Western powers, Great Britain’s for example, was limited and benign, and its initiatives were transparent, no concern would arise. But China’s aggression towards India and Vietnam, its illegal claims and militarisation of islets in the South China Sea, its suppression of political activity in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and President Xi Jinping’s promotion of rigid Communist Party orthodoxy at home have made Western leaders wary. They fear the erosion by China of the stable rules-based order that has underpinned the prosperity of much of the Asia-Pacific during the post-WWII era.
Unless Western leaders, led by the US, can work together to moderate China’s growing influence, the balance of power will tilt adversely against them in the Pacific region. The new convergence of Western policies to resist Russian aggression in Ukraine is a hopeful sign – if it could be focused also on Pacific policies. But the rise of illiberal isolationist populism in the US is a worry. A return of Trump to the presidency, or of Trumpism in Congress, would lead again to America’s abdication of leadership, as suffered in the period 2017-2021.
The Solomon Islands may now be a fulcrum on which Western historical commitments on the one hand and China’s rising influence in the Pacific on the other are delicately balanced. Creative Western initiatives to stabilise that balance are needed now as never before.