The Solomon Islands Is Making Its China Problem Worse
Earlier this year, the Solomon Islands signed a secret security agreement with China. Because the final text of the deal has not been made public, details of the pact have only emerged through leaked drafts which, naturally, cannot tell the full story.
What is known, is that the new deal allows the Solomon Islands to request support from China in the form of police and armed forces to help maintain domestic stability. It also allows for Chinese vessels (both commercial and military) to “visit and carry out logistical replenishment” in the Islands.
Ostensibly, this security deal has become necessary because of the riots that broke out in the Solomon Islands in 2019 and 2021, when Chinese businesses were torched by citizen mobs outraged at the government’s so-called “switch” (changing diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China). Angry Islanders accused Chinese businesses of employing foreigners over locals, and accused China of trying to “overpower” the Islands with its influence (China is believed to have bribed local officials to do its bidding) and undermine its sovereignty, including by attempting to lease the entire island of Tulagi, one of the islands in the Solomon archipelago.
At the time of the riots, the Solomon Islands had pre-existing security arrangements with Australia to provide police and military personnel in cases of civil unrest, but by the time Australian Federal Police and Defense Force personnel were deployed, a lot of damage to Chinese infrastructure had already been done. A former prime minister of the Islands, Danny Philip, claimed that Australia deliberately left Chinese structures vulnerable and had orders not to protect them – an allegation that Australia has repeatedly denied (and given that the Australian personnel reported to and received their orders from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, it is hard to see how Philip’s allegation holds water). Nevertheless, the Solomon Islands maintains that Australia has left holes in its security, and the new agreement with China is needed to “plug [those] gaps.”
In addition to these risks, there’s the danger that the decision to allow military vessels and personnel to operate in the Solomon Islands raises the possibility of a new Chinese military base there – in reality, even if it’s not formally acknowledged. Both parties have strongly denied the possibility: Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, claimed that China has “no intention at all” of building a military base; and the current prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, has called the speculation “insulting,” and said he “denied it totally.”
But it begs the question why China would go through the trouble of sending troops to the Solomon Islands unless a military base was on the cards. Furthermore, China has a dubious track record. Despite assurances that it would not militarize the South China Sea, it has undoubtedly done so. Similarly, China’s military facility in Djibouti was repeatedly downplayed and called a “logistics” or “support” facility for Chinese vessels to get “rest and replenishments” – remarkably similar rhetoric to that surrounding the new agreement with the Solomon Islands – but whatever China chooses to call it, it now has a military base there.
The Solomon Islands are very strategically located, roughly a third of the way between Australia and Hawaii; a Chinese military base there could potentially cut Australia off from US reinforcements in the event of hostilities. It also ramps up the pressure on Australia’s defense forces, exposing the country to the sort of military posturing currently experienced on a regular basis by Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Most concerningly, it would bring Australia (and New Zealand) within range of a number of long-distance weapons that could theoretically target major cities like Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Auckland, or even Melbourne.
Adding to the complexity of this issue is the fact that Solomon Islanders are overwhelmingly against the country’s new partnership: a survey last December found that only 9% preferred to be “diplomatically aligned” with China and 91% favored closer ties with liberal democracies (like Australia); similarly, only 21% of Islanders believed their country should accept financial aid from China. Given this degree of anti-China sentiment, and the recent anti-China riots, it’s easy to see how any new Chinese “logistics base” would need to build up its defenses and militarize. Thus, despite assurances from China and the Solomon Islands’ government to the contrary, many now feel that it is not so much a question of “if” China will build a military base in the Islands, but “how quickly.”
Solomon Islanders are overwhelmingly against the country’s new partnership with China.
Does Honiara really know what it’s signing up for? Sogavare has been clear that he will not “invite” China to build a military base; he insists that he signed the pact with “eyes wide open” and believes that security partners do not need to share the same “ideologies” to work together. Of course, a Chinese military base would bring rewards as well as risks. If Honiara can walk the line between China and Australia, then it could get twice as much foreign investment and aid.
But China is a very different kind of partner from Australia and its allies. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, declared that, Australia is “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached.” She’s right. Whilst Australian support has been transparent, China’s support is deliberately secretive; whilst Australia treats the Solomon Islands like “family” (albeit, one it squabbles with) China seeks only to use it for its own strategic advantage. Chinese influence and insularity is already a source of conflict in the Solomon Islands – it is difficult to see how dramatically increasing that influence, allowing it to build a military base there, and getting it to try to police these conflicts would help things rather than inflame them. Islanders are already worried about the health of their democracy and see warning signs in the government’s decision to invite China’s draconian brand of policing and democratic suppression (seen most recently in Hong Kong) in. And though Sogavare is optimistic that differences in ideology between China and the theoretically democratic Islands will not become an issue, opposing Solomon Islands MPs are not, and have expressed concern that the new security deal essentially provides him with the means to stay in power against the will of the people. This new partnership has the potential to fundamentally erode the country’s democracy and turn Sogavare into a dictator propped up by Chinese military forces.
Australian troops in the Solomon Islands for RAMSI, a peacekeeping mission in 2003 (Picture Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)
These are serious concerns, and real risks that the Solomon Islands will need to contend with as it deepens its relationship with China. Fortunately, if the gamble doesn’t pay off, the Solomon Islands can be sure that Australia and its allies will be there to pick up the pieces.
If the gamble doesn’t pay off, the Solomon Islands can be sure that Australia and its allies will be there to pick up the pieces.
How is Australia responding to this? Marise Payne, who until this week was Australia’s foreign minister, expressed concern at Honiara’s decision, but reiterated that Australia “stands ready to assist further if needed.” Australian policy has always been to respect the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty and stay out of its politics, even when the results are arguably to Australia’s detriment. For example, Australia might have preferred the 2021 riots to succeed in replacing Sogavare with a different, anti-China leader who would be more aligned with Australia’s own interests. Instead, Australia dispatched its personnel there, under command of the local police force, to help reestablish order, even though this helped Sogavare hold onto power. Even now, despite strongly disapproving of Sogavare’s new deal, Australia has not wound back its economic aid, remains the Solomon Islands’ largest development partner, and has committed to extending the Solomons International Assistance Force (the troop deployment there) to help keep order through 2023.
Australia and the other Pacific island nations often call themselves a “Pacific family.” In this analogy, the new security deal between the Solomon Islands and China is like the start of a potentially abusive relationship; loving siblings like Australia must accept that the mistake is Honiara’s to make whilst preparing for when things go wrong, as they probably will.