GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 632, 24 April 2022

The Solomon Islands: China's security agreement and a US visit
Arshiya Banu

What happened?
On 22 April, a senior US delegation, led by the national security council's Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink arrived in the Solomon Islands to express their concern over China's increased activity in the region. 

On 21 April, New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, drew attention to Beijing's "growing assertiveness" in the Pacific region and questioned the motives behind the security treaty that China and Solomon Islands signed. She said: "One of the reasons we've expressed this disappointment [is] … Australia and New Zealand both have heeded the call of the Solomons for support during recent disruption. And we've again highlighted that should any extended need exist, we are there to help and support. What gap remains that requires such an agreement with China?"

On 20 April, Taiwan's ministry of foreign affairs (MOFA) advised the Solomon Islands that it should not let itself be used as a puppet after signing the agreement with China. 

On 19 April, China's foreign minister Wang Wenbin announced the signing of an inter-governmental framework agreement with the Solomon Islands on security cooperation between the two countries. The pact was signed by state councillor Wang Yi and Solomon Islands foreign minister Jeremiah Manele. Wenbin said the agreement seeks to enhance "social stability and long-term tranquillity" in the islands and stressed that it is not directed against any third country, but rather serves the interests of the South Pacific area as a whole. On the same day, the Australian government claimed that the agreement was negotiated behind closed doors and stated that it could "undermine regional stability." The government stated it was "deeply disappointed" by the agreement's signing. The foreign minister of Australia, Marise Payne, and the minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Australia would "continue to strongly encourage the Solomon Islands to engage in regional dialogue and to work with the Pacific family first, including prior to seeking security assistance from China under this arrangement".

What is the background?
First, the strategic importance of the Solomon Islands. Situated in the South Pacific Ocean, the Solomon Islands consists of six major and over 900 smaller islands. It is located northeast of Australia, with whom the archipelago has deep and long-standing relations. The islands, which are also situated between sea routes, serve as a strategic port and a hinterland for maritime trade.

Second, concerns over a security arrangement with China. A provision of a draft version of the agreement, which leaked last month, took diplomats and government officials – even from within the Solomon Islands – by total surprise. According to reports, it allows China to send People's Armed Police and military units to assist with maintaining order, while Navy vessels can dock at the Solomon Islands' harbours for supply purposes. Western governments were caught off guard since they believe the agreement will give Beijing a military foothold in the region. They fear that the partnership has the potential to exacerbate instability on the islands, as well as establish a worrying precedent for the Pacific Island region.

Third, the US reaction to China. On 13 April, prior to the signing of the pact, the US warned that China's offer to deepen security ties will come with strings attached. The prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, defended the agreement saying it will not jeopardize regional peace and harmony and that it was crucial to solving the nation's "internal security situation." There has been political instability, anti-China protests in November, sparking concern from the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Sogavare also denied that China will be allowed to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands. Despite his assurances, little has been done to alleviate the fears. In 2019, the government switched diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan, ending their 36-year diplomatic relationship. This shift caused widespread tensions and civil upheaval in the country ostensibly allied with the US and Australia.

Fourth, US-Australia and the Solomon Islands. The US delegation arrived in Honiara, to hold talks with the Solomon Islands government. also It is believe the discussion would also focus on plans to reopen an embassy in Honiara, as part of an effort to expand its presence in the strategically vital country amid growing objections about Chinese influence. The embassy has been closed since 1993. The US delegation made previous stops in Fiji and Papua New Guinea where it discussed the agreement, its security concerns, and other issues such as climate change and pandemic aid. 

What does it mean?
First, a new frontier in big power relations in the Pacific. Since the signing, the Solomon Islands have become a theatre of a new cold war for the western powers and China. The fact that the US embassy in the Solomon Islands has been closed for 29 years and the most recent visit to Fiji by a US Secretary of State was 37 years ago says enough about the Pacific Island Countries becoming someone's backyard or a pawn in a geopolitical conflict. 

Second, the China agreement taken for granted. Several senior US officials are now interested in visiting the various PICs after all these years. This clearly exposes the US cold war mentality to use the South Pacific region against China. 

Third, a bitter pill. To offset China's growing influence, it is expected that the US and Australia would enhance military cooperation and civilian investment in the Solomon Islands and other South Pacific countries. Through the AUKUS agreement, the US has frequently outsourced its monitoring operations in the region to Australia. Both countries believe that by deploying military forces to the islands, they can maintain their regional influence. The emergence of the agreement is, without a doubt a bitter pill for all nations that have been engaging in recent months to challenge China's influence in the Pacific through various measures. 

Fourth, the implications for the Solomon Islands. With an increase in China's presence in the island nation, it could lead to a similar fate as Djibouti, where a commercial port eventually became a military port. Every time China signs a deal or invests through its Belt and Road Initiative, or any agreement is inked, it quickly draws attention due to China's well known "death-trap" or as the world calls it, "debt-trap" policy.