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Understanding China-Solomon Islands Security Cooperation in Context

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Understanding China-Solomon Islands Security Cooperation in Context

This article endeavors to cause policymakers and analysts in the West to consider narratives and perspectives that may clash or overlap with theirs to varying degrees.

Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are in for some rough sailing. Pacific regionalism is growing, but so too is the influence of external powers. These powers include traditional influencers, namely Australia, New Zealand, the US, and France. Among more recently engaged powers are Japan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Indonesia, South Korea, and India.

When Dame Meg Taylor, former Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general and an advocate for the Blue Pacific (and not picking sides in the US-PRC rivalry), noted that “In the secretariat’s 2017 State of Pacific Regionalism report, we raised the potential for the Pacific to be a bridge between China and Latin America,” [1] it shows that any analysis of Pacific island geopolitics must be careful. PICs see PRC activity as potentially “deliver[ing] much-needed infrastructure and technology for building Blue Pacific resilience.” [2] A Western conception of international relations and its narrative surrounding the “rise/threat of China” must be examined and parsed for truth and misrepresentations.

“While criticisms of western-centric assumptions are well-known, they have had little impact on dominant perceptions of geopolitical competition globally, or in respect of the Pacific Islands. This has consequences for Oceanic states and peoples, as these perceptions increasingly influence the strategic and foreign policies of metropolitan powers.” [3]

This article endeavors to cause policymakers and analysts in the West to consider narratives and perspectives that may clash or overlap with theirs to varying degrees. In 2022, the Solomon Islands (SI) signed a security agreement with the PRC, producing distress but also exaggerated responses from Western governments.

A Background of the Solomon Islands

SI is a collection of hundreds of islands in the Melanesian subregion of Oceania that are home to historically unrelated groups of people that were brought together largely due to the colonial actions of the UK and Germany at the end of the 19th century. Colonialism brought Chinese indentured labor to it and other PICS. [4] SI went on to be the site of intense military confrontation between the Japanese and Allied forces in World War II, as epitomized by the Battle of Guadalcanal. [5] Although the country had a nationalist movement, SI independence in 1978 was to a significant extent the result of the UK pulling out because of its own interests and international pressure. [6] The PIC borders Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia.

Ethnic tensions roiled the country from 1998 to 2003. A coup d’etat in 2000 deposed the prime minister. In 2003, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) intervened upon the request of the SI government and as a manifestation of the Pacific regional Biketawa Declaration of 2000 that allowed interventions into PICs; Australia was at the helm of RAMSI and has continued to provide security assistance after 2017, when RAMSI officially came to a close in conjunction with the establishment of an ever-present bilateral security treaty between the two countries. (It “enables the rapid deployment of troops and assistance (including by third states.” [7]) In 2019, riots broke out in the capital of Honiara following the election of Manasseh Sogavare to the position of Prime Minister for the fourth time. (His first premiership began after the 2000 coup.) These riots followed and preceded riots in 2006 and 2021 that saw significant damage to Chinatown.

In 2019, the SI government broke its diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan) and established them with the PRC instead. The subsequent year, the country published its first national security strategy (NSS).

2023 has seen the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Honiara after its closure nearly three decades ago and the expressed intent of PM Sogavare to review the 2017 security agreement with Australia. The prime minister also visited the PRC; while he was there, ties between the two countries were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership (which China has with all 10 PICs with which it has diplomatic relations) “featuring mutual respect and common development for a new era.” [8] Finally, it hosted for the first time the 17th Pacific Games, which ended in early December.

Although SI was scheduled to graduate from its least developed country status in 2024, the government pushed for a postponed graduation in 2027. A UN Committee for Development Policy 24th Plenary Session in early 2022 reads: “The Solomon Islands have an undiversified production and export base as well as highly concentrated trade with one market (China) accounting for close to 70 percent of merchandise exports. The services sector is largely underdeveloped and operates at one-tenth of the goods export sector. The islands are rich in timber and heavily reliant on the logging industry which contributes 20 percent to domestic revenue and over 70 percent of exports. However, the resource has been over-exploited and is facing depletion.” [9]

Like other Melanesian countries, the political system of SI is “typified by lack of party discipline and ideology (‘unbounded politics’), adherence to democratic elections as a source of legitimacy (‘democratic persistence’), powerful and overriding loyalties to kin (‘primacy of kin obligations’), and the ineffectiveness of government in general (‘the limited state’). At the same time law and justice are delivered at the local level in local ways, through custom, church and state.” [10] As for society, “[t]he country is confronted with security issues born not out of external threats from war or terrorism, but from internal threats ranging from a lack of employment opportunities to a lack of entrepreneurial skills…; the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems through changes in the climate; the loss of habitat and arable land from rising sea levels; and the devastating health effects of noncommunicable diseases…” [11] Foreign businesses have a larger sway over politicians than SI citizens do. [12]

The SI-PRC Security Agreement and its Aftermath

In November 2021, riots affected Honiara yet again. In response, SI permitted Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji to deploy to the PIC. The following month, [13] the country announced that it would seek further policing assistance from the PRC. Then in March 2022, a claimed draft of a security agreement between SI and PRC was leaked. [14] The SI-PRC security arrangement was signed in April.

In the announcement that SI PM Sogavare gave concerning the passage of the security deal with the PRC, he said: “I ask all our neighbors, friends, and partners to respect the sovereign interests of Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region…Let me once again reiterate that Solomon Islands Security Cooperation with China is guided by the country’s Foreign Policy of ‘Friends to all and Enemies to none.’ Solomon Islands do not have any external adversaries…It complements our (2017) Security Agreement with Australia.” [15]

He has denied that a PRC military base would be established.

Western Over-Sensitivity? The Pacific Context

The traditional (Western) powers in the region of PICs were accustomed to considering themselves as the partner of choice for the islands and as Pacific actors. This view has been increasingly challenged by PICs who are seeking greater control over their trans-oceanic affairs, which was particularly seen by Fiji’s creation in 2013 of the Pacific Island Development Forum that excluded traditional powers from membership. Western countries have also had to contend with an ever more visible PRC presence in Oceania. Western influence still dominates though: “[A]mong the 14 PICs, 5 are states in free association, 11 are member states of the Commonwealth of Nations. Eight PICs use the currencies of their former suzerains. Only three nations have [a] military.” [16]

1.SI Sovereignty

SI PM Sogavare has had misgivings toward Australia since the days of RAMSI. “While being fully aware of the contribution of RAMSI, [he] says that Australia forced what it regarded as good governance upon his country, a significant deviation from the original objective of maintaining public order. The[re was] humiliation [in] his country’s sovereignty being unreasonably undermined…” [17] It is understandable that the PIC may want to constrain what it sees as a patronizing Australian stance toward it, considering those sentiments.

Moreover, given the trade and development ambitions of SI (and the dominance of ethnic Chinese, in the country’s retail space, export destination, and financial sector), it is understandable that SI wants to foster relations with the PRC. (Malaysian Chinese are important actors.) It wants to attract no-strings-attached financing by allowing the PRC to provide security for Chinese residents, property, and projects in the PIC: 2006 and 2021 saw protests that led to rioting in Chinatown. However, commentators and analysts must acknowledge the diverse makeup, perspectives, and interests of Chinese residents; not all can be said to be actively involved in accomplishing PRC strategic motives. [18]

Nevertheless, it may be said that the SI-PRC security agreement is “substantially lopsided in favor of [the Asian superpower]” [19] and that SI does not have the capacity to effectively handle a power imbalanced relationship. [20] Corruption is rife and island elites of the PIC even perceived it when the country had relations with ROC/Taiwan. [21]

SI sovereignty plays can be acknowledged when PM Sogavare said, “Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation and will not directly or indirectly put itself in a position to choose sides,” at a press conference following the Republic of Korea-Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit in June 2023. [22] He also proclaimed that the only strategy to which SI was attached was the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy. Nevertheless, he allowed SI to sign the US Pacific Partnership statement in 2022.

2.PRC and Western Strategic and Security Engagements in Oceania

Chinese engagement in the Pacific Islands region has grown. It has Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with all ten PICs that recognize it. (As of July 2023, it observed that status with 31 other countries around the world, including Spain, France, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.) Chinese military ship visits have become more frequent and consistent. [23]

However, it has also experienced setbacks. Following the signing of the SI-PRC security agreement in 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went on a multi-day trip to various PICs to secure a collective security deal with them; this proposal was refused, although other deals were made. Not only did that deal not come to fruition, but Fiji, the main island facilitator of the PRC-PICs talks, went on to join the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework soon after. [24] Furthermore, in June 2023 Fiji PM Sitiveni Rabuka announced a review of a police MOU the country had with the PRC (although it has not been abrogated, and a PRC naval ship visited the country in October).

At the same time, Western countries have stepped up their military activities in the region. Literally, Australia initiated a “Pacific Step-Up” in 2017 (notably before the West-upsetting events in SI). In 2018 New Zealand promulgated a “Pacific Reset” and the UK its “Pacific Uplift,” and France launched its Indo-Pacific Strategy; in 2019 the US put forward its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. [25] Already, the US enjoyed compacts of free association with three PICs while New Zealand maintained them with two PICs. (In 2023, the three PICs in free association with the US renewed their status for another twenty years.)

However, the Western security-related presence is not without controversy. The 2023 signing of security arrangements between PNG and both the US and Australia and between Australia and both Vanuatu and Tuvalu led to outcry from opposition politicians or concern in those countries. Australia had to wait several months for unease over wording in the PNG deal to be resolved.

3.An Exercise in Juxtapositions

The PRC may have gained in 2019 the diplomatic recognition of the SI (and days after, Kiribati, another PIC), but the SI (and Kiribati and nine other PICs) are members of the British Commonwealth. The PRC is the number one trading partner for most PICs, [26] including SI, but the largest donor to the region is Australia. The PRC gifted the main stadium for the 2023 Pacific Games and provided policing assistance, but so too did Australia have police present, and the US naval medical ship USNS Mercy was docked in Honiara. (Earlier in the year, the Chinese medical ship Peace Ark also paid a visit.)

When the (still to be verified) draft of the PRC-SI security agreement was leaked in 2022, to the alarm and consternation of Western governments, the PIC already had a security treaty with Australia.

By the time the deal with the PRC was signed, “Australia [was] already building a patrol base in Lofung, in the Shortland Islands which borders [PNG], and [had] announced that they [would] build another one in the eastern Solomon Islands.” [27]

After the PRC sent “95 replica rifles and 95 replica pistols into Solomon Islands in February [2023] which bypassed port authorities, … [Australia then made a] donation of 60 semi-automatic rifles (with specialist training included).” [28]

Whereas Chinese telecommunications company Huawei is set to build 161 mobile communication towers in SI, [29] the US and Australia “plan to work collaboratively with commercial cable providers Google and Hawaiki Nui, in partnership with Pacific Island countries, to provide branching units for Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu (Italics added).” [30]

Security for the Pacific Peoples

In the words of Transform Aqorau: “In the past decade, there has been renewed interest in China’s aid and investment in [PICs] and the alleged security threat this poses”“…

It is interesting to see how this attention has transformed to be characterized in negative terms,… These security threats are largely manufactured, fueled-up fears led mainly by some in the Australian media…and think tanks…, stoking fear amongst the Australian, New Zealand and broader Western security axis. This fear is not for the safety and security of the people of the Pacific Islands.” [31]

Having said all the above, and as Aqorau has noted in the chapter he wrote in the book The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands (2021, edited by Graeme Smith and Terence Wesley-Smith), it is incumbent upon the islands country (and other PICs) to learn more about the PRC. “China has become the largest trading partner for most Pacific Island countries. It has invested in ten Pacific countries within the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative and built numerous large infrastructure projects which it financed by loans. These were projects which other countries or donor institutions were not able or not willing to finance.” [32]

Additionally, SI scholar Tarcisius Kabutaulaka has written: “Although it is unlikely that a Chinese base will be developed under the new security [deal], China’s influence will continue to grow. It would be naïve to ignore Beijing’s persuasive powers and the current Solomon Islands government’s willingness to use this relationship to access aid, especially infrastructure development that could be valuable political capital for the next national elections.” [33] In fact, “China’s infrastructure financing [among PICs] now focuses mainly on two countries: Kiribati and the Solomons Islands. [After they] switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, [the latter] subsequently financed three major projects in the Solomon Islands: a Huawei telecommunications project, the upgrade of its major port and a sports stadium for the ongoing Pacific Games, a pet project of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.” [34]

Despite PRC influence, the SI NSS of October 2020 “[r]ecognize[s], the roles of the… Commonwealth, …as the international…bodies responsible for the security of the globe and the Pacific.” [35] While it mentions Australia six times, the PRC is not mentioned once. It also notes the Australian funded and created Pacific Fusion Center and Pacific Security College as “[r]egional [f]acilities that could help [it] with [i]mplementation of the NSS.” [36]

Whereas the final text of the SI-PRC deal has not been released, the texts of Australian security deals for PNG, [37] Vanuatu, [38] and Tuvalu [39] have been disclosed. Of concern to Western analysts is the stipulation in the SI-PRC deal that prevents both parties from disclosing information about the deal to others without the consent of the other party.

SI is a relatively unstable country with unresolved ethnic tensions among its native population. The Australian and PRC support to SI police and domestic security is thus worrying given police actions during the ethnic tensions at the turn of the millennium. Security in this sense (training and donations to build up police capacity) could undermine the human, climate, and environmental securities for which the SI NSS calls.

A focus on geopolitical competition between the US and its allies and the PRC, which seems to be the main concern among Western analysts, may be detrimental to Pacific peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity. As Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna wrote: “While geopolitical competition could draw much-needed attention and resources to the Pacific, it could also distract the region and its partners from efforts to address its existing security priorities – addressing climate security, supporting human security and disrupting criminal activity.” If external powers are to be true partners of the Blue Pacific, they must address the priorities of the PICs and understand their perspectives.

References

[1] Smith, Graeme, and Terence Wesley-Smith, ed. The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands. Australia: Australian National University Press, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Koro, Maima, Henrietta McNeill, Henry Ivarature, and Joanne Wallis. “Tā, Vā, and Lā: Re-Imagining the Geopolitics of the Pacific Islands.” Political Geography 105 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2023.102931.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “History of the Solomon Islands.” britannica.com, December 2021. https://www.britannica.com/place/Solomon-Islands/History.

[6] Firth, Stewart. Geo-Political Overview of Melanesia from: The Melanesian World Routledge, 17 Apr 2019.
Accessed on: 09 Dec 2023 https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315529691-5

[7] Wallis, Joanne, Henrietta McNeill, James Batley, and Anna Powles. “Mapping Security Cooperation in the Pacific Islands.” Canberra: Department of Pacific Affairs, 2021. https://dpa.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2021-06/mapping_security_cooperation_in_pacific_islands_dpa_research_report_2021_joanne_wallis_henrietta_mcneill_james_batley_anna_powles.pdf

[8] huaxia, ed. “Full Text: Joint Statement on Establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Featuring Mutual Respect and Common Development for a New Era between the People’s Republic of China and Solomon Islands.” Xinhua, July 10, 2023. https://english.news.cn/20230710/3a7a2dee644747d4be66dff21050bfc3/c.html.

[9] UN Committee for Development Policy. Rep. Monitoring of Countries Graduating and Graduated from the List of LDC Category: Solomon Islands, 2022. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/CDP-PL-2022-8-7-Monitoring.pdf.

[10] Firth (2019)

[11] Aqorau, Transform, and Terence Wesley-Smith. “Solomon Islands’ Foreign Policy Dilemma and the Switch from Taiwan to China.” Chapter. In The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands, edited by Graeme Smith and Terence Wesley-Smith. Australia: Australian National University Press, 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349698122_Solomon_Islands’_Foreign_Policy_Dilemma_and_the_Switch_from_Taiwan_to_China.

[12] Aqorau, Transform. “Solomon Islands’ Slippery Slide to Self-Implosion.” Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre, March 1, 2022. https://devpolicy.org/solomon-islands-slippery-slide-to-self-implosion-20211125/.

[13] Powles, Anna. “Geopolitical Duel in the Pacific: Solomon Islands Security at Risk as Australia and China Compete.” Lowy Institute, July 7, 2023. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/geopolitical-duel-pacific-solomon-islands-security-risk-australia-china-compete.

[14] Wood, Terence. “The Solomons Security Shambles, and What It Says about Us.” Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre, May 6, 2022. https://devpolicy.org/solomons-security-shambles-20220423/.

[15] GCU Press. “Solomon Islands-China Security Cooperation Signed.” My SIG Services Portal, April 20, 2022. https://solomons.gov.sb/solomon-islands-china-security-cooperation-signed/.

[16] Izumi, Kobayashi. “State of Affairs in the Pacific Island Region: Reading China’s Agenda and the Sentiments of Pacific Islanders.” The Sasakawa Peace Foundation-The Opri Center of Island Studies, 2023. https://www.spf.org/islandstudies/research/a00029.html#anc2.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Koro, McNeill, Ivarature, and Wallis (2023)

[19] Ibid.

[20] Aqorau in Smith and Wesley-Smith (2021)

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kumar, Sanjeshni. “Sanjeshni Kumar.” PINA, June 16, 2023. https://pina.com.fj/2023/06/16/no-geopolitics-solomon-islands-pm-explains-stance-for-rejecting-the-korea-pacific-islands-forum-leaders-summit-declaration/?doing_wp_cron=1702334007.9706940650939941406250.

[23] Orchard, Andrew. “China’s Navy in Pacific Island Ports.” The Diplomat, September 19, 2023. https://thediplomat.com/2023/09/chinas-navy-in-pacific-island-ports/.

[24] Izumi (2023)

[25] Wallis, McNeill, Batley, and Powles (2021)

[26] Schleich, Anne-Marie. “CO23171 | Pacific Island Countries, China and the US: Recent Geopolitical Trends.” RSIS_NTU, November 27, 2023. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/pacific-island-countries-china-and-the-us-recent-geopolitical-trends/#:~:text=China’s%20Strategic%20Goals%20in%20the%20Region&text=China%20has%20become%20the%20largest,which%20it%20financed%20by%20loans.

[27] Aqorau, Transform. “Rethinking Solomon Islands Security.” Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre, April 14, 2022. https://devpolicy.org/rethinking-solomon-islands-security-20220404/.

[28] Powles (2023)

[29] Kabutaulaka, Tarcisius. “China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement and Competition for Influence in Oceania.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, November 2, 2022. https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2022/12/02/china-solomon-islands-security-agreement-and-competition-for-influence-in-oceania/.

[30] Briefing Room. “United States-Australia Joint Leaders’ Statement Building an Innovation Alliance.” The White House, October 25, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/10/25/united-states-australia-joint-leaders-statementbuilding-an-innovation-alliance/.

[31] Aqorau in Smith and Wesley-Smith (2021)

[32] Schleich (2023)

[33] Kabutaulaka (2022)

[34] Schleich (2023)

[35] MPNSCS, National Security Strategy (2020). Accessed on 13 Dec2023 https://pacificsecurity.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/210201-SOLOMONS-National-Security-Strategy-Final_.pdf

[36] Ibid.

[37] See: https://www.dfat.gov.au/countries/papua-new-guinea/australia-papua-new-guinea-bilateral-security-agreement

[38] See: https://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/development/australia-vanuatu-bilateral-security-agreement

[39] See: https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/tuvalu/australia-tuvalu-falepili-union-treaty

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