The story so far: A recent leaked document has revealed that the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific has reached a deal with China which outlines an unprecedented level of security cooperation. This is the first deal of its kind for Beijing in the region. Honiara’s confirmation of the move has raised alarms in Washington and Canberra, which have extensive stakes in the South Pacific.
What are the contents of the proposed deal and why are they controversial?
The document titled ‘Framework Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation’ was leaked through social media on March 24. It created a huge controversy domestically as well as internationally because it has the potential to disturb the established security mechanisms in the South Pacific region. The document explicitly enables Beijing to send its “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to the islands on the latter government’s request, or if the former sees that the safety of its projects and personnel in the islands are at risk.
The document also provides for China’s naval vessels to utilise the islands for logistics support. There have been speculations in the wake of this revelation that China might be building its next overseas naval base in Solomon Islands after Djibouti, which was also incidentally referred to as a logistics support base.
Dismissing the prospects for any foreign military base, the government of Solomon Islands affirmed the finalisation of the draft of such a deal. The deal is not yet signed and it is not fully known whether the provisions mentioned in the leaked document are present in the final draft.
What is the rationale for the Solomon Islands’ increasing proximity to China?
The Solomon Islands is part of the ethnically Melanesian group of islands in the Pacific and lies between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. The islands, which were initially controlled by the British Empire during the colonial era, went through the hands of Germany and Japan and then back to the U.K., after the Americans took over the islands from the Japanese during World War II.
The islands became independent in 1978 to become a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown, with a parliamentary system of government. Nevertheless, its inability to manage domestic ethnic conflicts led to close security relations with Australia, which is the traditional first responder to any crisis in the South Pacific. The Solomon Islands had cultivated strong ties with Taiwan, which ended with the emergence of the current government in Honiara.
In 2019, the new government headed by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched Taiwan for China. This was supposedly after Beijing offered half a billion U.S. dollars in financial aid, roughly five times what Taiwan spent on the islands in the past two decades. It has been alleged by the pro-Taiwan Opposition that the Sogavare government has been bribed by China. As the money from China flowed in, so did the adverse impact to the local population from Chinese businesses, Chinese labourers for Chinese infrastructure projects, as well as a perceived preferential treatment for Chinese interests by Honiara.
The switching of diplomatic relations along with the general dissatisfaction with the government, led to widespread Opposition protests and riots in Honiara in November 2021. Strikingly, these riots targeted Chinese assets in addition to government property. The government has also notably mentioned that the move is aimed at diversification of its security partnerships, taking aim at its longstanding security dependence on Australia.
Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?
The Pacific islands are among the few regions in the world where China has competition from Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. China considers Taiwan to be a renegade territory awaiting reunification, and opposes its recognition as an independent state on the international stage. Hence, any country which has to officially establish relations with China will have to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The Solomon Islands was one among the six Pacific island states which had official bilateral relations with Taiwan. However, in 2019, the Solomon Islands, along with Kiribati, switched allegiance to China. This has left only four regional countries backing Taiwan, mostly belonging to the Micronesian group of islands which are under the control of the U.S.. The small Pacific island states act as potential vote banks for mobilising support for the great powers in international fora like the United Nations.
Moreover, these states have disproportionately large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones when compared to their small sizes, the reason why these ‘small island states’ are seen also seen as ‘big ocean states’. Solomon Islands, in particular, have significant reserves of timber and mineral resources, along with fisheries. But more importantly, they are strategically located for China to insert itself between America’s military bases in the Pacific islands and Australia. This is especially significant in the current scenario, given the emergence of the AUKUS (Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.) which seeks to elevate Australia’s strategic capabilities vis-à-vis China through Anglo-American cooperation. Nonetheless, the anti-China nature of the 2021 riots in Honiara turned out to be the immediate trigger for Beijing to ramp up its security cooperation with the Solomon Islands.
What does this mean for the established geopolitical configuration in the region?
The Pacific islands, in the post-World War II scenario, were exclusively under the spheres of influence of the Western powers, in particular the U.S., U.K., France and the regional heavyweights, Australia and New Zealand. All of them have territorial possessions in the region, with the three nuclear powers among them having used the region as a nuclear weapons testing ground. The smaller island nations of the region are heavily dependent on them, especially Australia as it is a resident power. This established power structure in the region is being increasingly challenged by China through the steady displacement of Taiwan and the cultivation of economic and political clout. Its proposed deal with the Solomon Islands has added a security dimension to its fast-growing profile in the region. Australia has reacted with boosted finances, and by extending its current security mission till 2023 when the islands will host the Pacific Games. The U.S. has responded by considering reopening its embassy in Honiara after a long 29-year gap. New Zealand has shed its typical restraint about China and has criticised it for attempting to militarise the Pacific islands.
However, it is to be noted that China’s rise in the South Pacific is not without opposition. AUKUS is a recent example of how the established powers are reacting; although, to what extent they can mobilise individual governments against China is questionable. Significant discontent has been brewing within and among the Pacific island states against China’s economic inroads and its adverse impact on their vulnerable economic and political systems. The riots in Honiara is only the recent one in the region which has an anti-China tint. The Nuku’alofa riots in Tonga (2006) had a similar character. The geopolitics of the region is undergoing an unprecedented flux in tandem with the larger shifts in the Indo-Pacific, suggesting an intensification of regional great power rivalry and domestic volatility for the Pacific island states in the coming years.
Dr. Anand V. is an Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal (Karnataka).