China’s government announced on April 19 that it had signed a landmark security pact with the Solomon Islands, evoking concern from Australia and the U.S. The agreement is the first of its kind that China has agreed with any country, and underlines its ambitions to play a security role in the Pacific. The final version has not been made public, but according to a draft that was leaked last month, it will pave the way for China to deploy its security forces there. The Solomon Islands can request police and military personnel “to assist in maintaining social order”, while China can make ship visits and use its ports for logistics. This will give China’s vessels a strategic foothold in the Pacific, in a region close to Australia and Guam, where the U.S. has a naval base. Both countries unsurprisingly expressed concern, with Washington, this week, even dispatching a senior official and Indo-Pacific Coordinator, Kurt Campbell, to the Solomon Islands, who will take up the pact as well as plans to reopen the U.S. Embassy there. China questioned the motivations of the visit, noting that the Embassy had been closed for 29 years but the U.S. had now taken a “sudden” interest.
The significance of the pact extends beyond the immediate regional security concerns in the Pacific. For decades, China insisted it would never open a military base abroad. Then, in 2017, the PLA put into use its first foreign base in Djibouti. The Solomon Islands government said the agreement does not imply China will build a base there. Chinese military planners have, however, made clear that further bases — for its navy — are in the works, with experts suggesting possible locations in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Equatorial Guinea (in the Atlantic). The pact does, however, relate to a second key pillar of China’s avowed “peaceful rise” doctrine, which was, as popularised by “Panchsheel” or the “five principles of peaceful co-existence” — the “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries. The deployment of security forces in a foreign country certainly does not square with that idea. China has already begun to do so elsewhere, albeit on a limited scale. Chinese media have mentioned China-Pakistan patrols in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, while reports have suggested the deployment of security forces in Tajikistan near the Wakhan corridor that links Afghanistan and Xinjiang. China’s past commitments on military bases and non-interference were intended to show the world Beijing would not seek to become a global “hegemon”, its favoured term to describe the U.S. But this is less of a concern for Xi Jinping, who has made clear his view that the “East is rising and West declining” and that China should be unabashed about moving to the “centre stage”. The latest security pact is unlikely to be the last.