A new security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China has renewed western concerns about Beijing’s growing Pacific ambitions
On 1 April, the Solomon Islands announced that it would initiate a security pact with China. In recent days, a draft of the treaty has been leaked, revealing some of its key provisions. The agreement would allow China to send armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement forces to help in "maintaining social order, protecting people's lives and property, and providing humanitarian assistance" in the south-west Pacific’s archipelago nation. According to media reports, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to pay a rare visit to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands later this month to reassert Beijing's commitment to the strategically located country.
The agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has unsettled the United States and many countries in the region, including Australia, Japan and New Zealand. In a joint statement published by the White House last month, these countries said the deal poses "serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific". What makes the security pact between China and this small country of nearly 700,000 people so controversial?
The Geographic Importance of the Solomon Islands
The Solomon Islands are a group of nearly 1,000 islands in Oceania, lying to the east of Papua New Guinea and north-west of Vanuatu. The country's capital, Honiara, is located on the island of Guadalcanal, the site of a bloody second world war battle between Allied and Japanese forces. The Solomon Islands are situated in what is known as the "Marianas Trench" of the Pacific Ocean, one of the deepest points in the ocean. As a result, the country has rich fishing grounds and vast reserves of minerals and other natural resources.
The Solomon Islands is also known as a "second island chain" country. The "first island chain" runs from the Kuril Islands, south of Russia, through Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines. The "second island chain" runs from the Bonin Islands, also known as the Ogasawara Islands, south of Japan, to the Solomon Islands. The country's strategic location has long been recognised by major powers.
During the second world war, the Solomon Islands were a key battleground between Allied and Japanese forces. In the postwar period, the United States established a military base on the island of Guam, which is part of the Mariana Islands chain and located just north of the Solomon Islands.
The widening gyre
The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is part of Beijing's broader strategy to extend its influence in the Pacific region. In recent years, Beijing has been establishing a network of economic and military partnerships with countries in the Pacific, including Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
There are several reasons why China is seeking to increase its influence here. First, the region is home to vast reserves of natural resources, including oil, gas and minerals. Second, the Pacific is an important shipping route between Asia and the Americas. And finally, the Pacific islands are strategically located near some of China's main rivals, including the United States, Japan and Australia.
As part of its strategy to extend its influence in the Pacific, Beijing has been investing heavily in the region. In 2020, the Solomon Islands sought a $100 billion loan from China to build infrastructure projects, raising concerns about the superpower's so-called "debt-trap diplomacy".
The Chinese government has also been providing loans to other Pacific island countries to finance the construction of infrastructure projects, such as ports, airports and roads. In some cases, these loans have come with strings attached, including the requirement that the projects be built by Chinese companies using Chinese workers.
Beijing's investment in the Pacific has been accompanied by a military buildup in the region. In recent years, China has been expanding its navy and building new ships, including destroyers and submarines. Some analysts have described Beijing's strategy in the Pacific as part of its broader "string of pearls" strategy. This refers to the network of Chinese military and economic bases built worldwide, including in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and Africa.
Others have likened it to a "cabbage strategy" – a reference to the Chinese government's policy of wrapping its rivals in an "embrace" of economic and military partnerships. The Solomon Islands says its security deal is simply intended to strengthen its ability to counter "hard internal threats". In an interview with NBC News, Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, described the deal as a "gamechanger".
"The US is the main target of this move," she said, "as it aims to counter US containment strategy in the Indo-Pacific. But it also directly threatens the security and autonomy of the island states of the Pacific, as well as Australia and New Zealand."
Relations between China and the Solomon Islands have drastically improved since the election of the current prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, in April 2019. Sogavare has been seeking to reduce the country's dependence on western countries, including the United States and Australia. Shortly after assuming office, he announced that the Solomon Islands would be severing ties with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with China. Washington didn't hide its displeasure at the time with Sogavare's decision, with then-Vice-President Mike Pence cancelling a meeting with him during a visit to the region.
Patricia M Kim, a Brookings Fellow and expert on Chinese foreign policy, argues that the pact's vague language could allow China to use the Solomons as a base for military activity in the South Pacific and Indian oceans; a particular worry for Australia, which is only 2,000km away. "Given the secretive nature of the China-Solomon Islands agreement and what is likely vague language that is open to interpretation if the final text is akin to the draft version, it will be critical to watch how Beijing and Honiara ultimately implement their security deal," she wrote last week.
"But the fact that Beijing agreed to provide direct security assistance to help a foreign government defend against ‘internal threats’ in exchange for advancing Chinese interests indicates a potentially alarming shift in China's modus operandi, which until now has primarily involved the extension of loans, investments, and other economic incentives, rather than direct intervention in civil conflicts, to win friends and influence in the global arena," she added.
Written By: Olivium staff.