Explained | Why has the China-Solomon Islands deal become the latest flashpoint between China and the U.S.? 

Surprise alliance: China’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming and the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare during the opening ceremony of a China-funded national stadium complex in Honiara on April 22, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: China’s government said on April 19 it had signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands. The pact, signed by the two foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Jeremiah Manele, paves the way for China to deploy security forces in the Pacific island nation, as well as for the Chinese navy, which has been rapidly growing its fleet as well as spreading its reach far from China’s shores, to use its ports. Giving China a strategic foothold in the Pacific, the agreement evoked concern from Australia and the United States, which despatched top officials earlier this week to the Solomon Islands, emerging as the latest flashpoint between the world’s two biggest powers.

Editorial | Growing ambitions: On China-Solomon Islands pact

What does the security agreement entail?

The final agreement has not been made public, although it is thought to be along the lines of a draft that was leaked last month. The document listed seven articles, the first of which said the “Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties.” It added that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands.” The other articles were related to how requests for Chinese security deployment may be sent, confidentiality to prevent either side from making the arrangements public to a third party, and the duration of the agreement, which will run for five years and may be extended.

What has been the response from other countries?

Given its close proximity to the Solomon Islands, Australia has expressed concern, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne saying Australia was “deeply disappointed” and “concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region”. On April 22, the U.S., which has a naval base in nearby Guam, sent a high-level delegation led by Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell to Honiara, the capital, and met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. The White House said both sides “engaged in substantial discussion around the recently signed security agreement between Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China”, noting that while Solomon Islands representatives indicated that “the agreement had solely domestic applications” the U.S. side “noted there are potential regional security implications of the accord.” “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation,” the U.S. said, it “would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.” Prime Minister Sogavare assured Washington there would be “no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability”.

What are the implications for China’s military and security ambitions abroad?

In 2017, China’s PLA put into operation its first foreign base in Djibouti, near the Horn of Africa, to service Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean. Since then, PLA experts have said Beijing is keen to tie up more such arrangements as it speeds up building a blue water navy, with a third aircraft carrier expected to be launched this year. Chinese analysts have said possible future ports include Karachi in Pakistan off the Arabian Sea, Cambodia to access the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, and even Equatorial Guinea for China’s first foothold in the Atlantic. Even if the Solomon Islands might not become a future base, the pact is significant in reflecting China’s willingness to deploy its forces abroad. Experts say more agreements may be in the works. Chinese counter-terrorism forces, reports have said, have already established a small presence in a base in Tajikistan near the China-Afghanistan border to monitor threats emanating from Afghanistan. China last year sent its own security team to Pakistan to investigate a blast at the Dasu hydropower project that killed nine Chinese workers, and has begun to carry out joint patrols with Pakistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

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Printable version | Apr 24, 2022 12:11:09 pm |