The Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 1,400 miles northeast of Australia with a population of 687,000, are perhaps best known in the United States as the site of a major naval campaign during the Second World War. This week, the island nation sent political shockwaves through Washington and Canberra when it announced it had signed a security pact with China. This is the first known bilateral security agreement between China and a Pacific country. And that may have military implications for the region.
According to a leaked draft agreement, it would allow Chinese warships to dock on the islands, and China could “help maintain social order”. The agreement has not been officially released, but a Chinese government spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that the “social order” clause was in the final version.
The Solomon Islands have been drifting in Beijing’s orbit for some time. In 2019, the islands severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with the People’s Republic of China. (Only 14 countries still have full diplomatic ties with Taiwan — many of them Pacific and Caribbean island states, and Beijing has reduced that number with a diplomatic and economic offensive.) The warming of relations with China has been highly controversial. in the Solomons, sparking violent protests last year that targeted both the government and the capital’s Chinatown. The unrest prompted Australia to send in troops to restore order.
The United States, which hasn’t even had an embassy in the Solomons for nearly 30 years but is now considering opening one, sent a high-level delegation to the islands this week, including the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the White House, Kurt Campbell, for interviews. on the pact. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, which lobbied against the deal, has come under heavy criticism, with the opposition Australian Labor Party calling it Australia’s “worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific”. 80 years old.
To understand why this deal is so important and what it means for the region going forward, Grid spoke with Bonnie Glaser, a leading China expert and Asia Program Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. -United.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Why do you think the announcement of this deal has caused such concern in the US and Australia?
Bonnie Glaser: First, because China has requested access to the port. There is evidence that they wanted to establish a military installation in the Pacific for some time and approached different governments. China has increased its economic presence in the region and there is, I think, valid reason to suspect that China may seek to use its economic presence to create the opportunity for more permanent development. military presence.
And so, I think Australia and the United States have been alert to this possibility because they view the region as very strategic.
G: What makes the Solomon Islands so strategically important? Is it just the location?
BG: This is the location. It’s really quite close to Australia. It includes approximately 900 islands located on shipping lanes that connect the United States to the wider region. Historically, it was considered strategically important for Japan. For example, during World War II, the United States had to dislodge its forces there during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
But the concerns are truly global. We have the feeling that China is spreading its wings. You may remember that about four or five months ago there was a report about the possibility of China investing in what could become a military installation in Equatorial Guinea. There have been reports of China establishing a possible base in Cambodia.
G: So now we see Kurt Campbell and other high officials going to the Solomons, but is it too little too late? The country has been deepening its ties with China for years. Did the United States drop the ball?
BG: I think so, absolutely. The United States has contracted the management of the Pacific to Australia. Australia is obviously much closer. He has had a long relationship with the region – relationships that are just as difficult but some of them positive. And I think the fact that the US hasn’t had a focused policy that keeps the focus on the region is part of the problem.
G: Considering the location, Australia is the other big player in this story. How has its relationship with China evolved in recent years?
BG: Australia’s relationship with China has undergone a sea change in recent years. I think one of the major turning points was [in 2020] when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an inquiry into the origins of covid-19. The relationship had already deteriorated before that, but that’s when it really went into a tailspin.
I think the Chinese saw this as a threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and started taking coercive trade action against Australian exports to China. And China presented a list of 14 demands to the Australian government on things it should do to improve the relationship, which basically boiled down to ‘you will never again do anything that harms China’s interests, and you will apologize for everything”. you did, and you will even change your political system if necessary to ensure that your media does not criticize China. Truly outrageous demands. And the relationship never recovered, especially as the US-Australia relationship deepened.
G: So what is China’s long-term strategy here? Will we see more offers like this?
BG: Again, I think you can see this pattern developing in various places around the world. The only place China really has a dedicated military base right now is in Djibouti, but there are around 95 ports China has invested in around the world. And they could be used for commercial or dual-use purposes, and some of them could actually become military bases.
And so, I think the trend is that China is interested in expanding its influence on strategic nodes, geographically important places that could support the [People’s Liberation Army] as it becomes more expeditionary. If you look at a map, you can see why they’re interested in Cambodia, and you can certainly see why they might be interested in the Indo-Pacific.
This is not the first sign of their interest in a military base in the Pacific, but it is the first example of truly substantial progress. You know, you can look at the actual agreement between the Solomons and China, and you won’t see the term “military base”, but you can see a lot of language to open the door for more of China’s military presence there. -down.
G: Given the backlash this is causing with the US and other countries, why do you think it is worth the Solomons signing this deal? What do they get out of it?
BG: This is to support support for the government of the Solomons. I am not very familiar with the politics of the Solomons, but there is certainly opposition in parliament there, just as we have seen disagreements in other countries. The Chinese government has pledged to invest in the Solomons. There was a rumor that it could be up to half a billion dollars. And that was back when there were talks about changing the recognition from Beijing to Taipei, which they finally did. And none of these rumored infrastructure projects have even started. We saw, apparently, a commitment to build a sports stadium, which I understand is being built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise using Chinese nationals for labor. This does not contribute to the sustained development of the Solomons.
And again, this is often a practice that we have seen in other countries where perhaps Chinese economic investment helps Chinese labor and Chinese companies and strengthens the political position of a individual leader, but it does not impact or contribute in any way to the overall economy of the country.
G: You mentioned Taipei. Could this have security implications for Taiwan?
BG: Well, the biggest implications for Taiwan were when diplomatic recognition passed to China. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a single case in the recent past where a country has changed return in Taiwan.
Regarding this agreement, the implications for Taiwan are potentially positive. They’re trying to highlight some of the things the Chinese are doing, and maybe that’s a wake-up call for the few Pacific countries where Taiwan still maintains diplomatic ties. This could draw attention in the region to perhaps some of the potential downsides of having too much of a Chinese presence in your country. This could end up helping Taiwan retain the few diplomatic allies it still has in the region. But that’s a question mark.
G: The United States now seems determined to repair its relationship with the Solomons. Are there things the United States could do differently, not just there, but in other “tipping point” countries so that it is not caught off guard like this again?
BG: There are many things the United States can do. One is to provide some protection to help the Solomons deal with illegal fishing. So we could provide coast guard vessels to help them monitor what’s going on inside their very, very large exclusive economic zone. Chinese fishing boats engage in much of the illegal fishing. We have already made contributions to a project called SCALE – Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods and the Environment – and this is part of a larger $200 million commitment. for the Pacific.
Basically, the Solomons need investment in infrastructure. The reason the Chinese successfully got into bed with the Solomons to begin with was because they offered to provide them with infrastructure. Instead, they provide a stadium. We should be the ones to step in and help provide the infrastructure, obviously not just ourselves, but with Japan, with Australia, maybe even with the Europeans. The Europeans have “Global Gateway”. We have “Rebuilding a Better World”. We all have a lot of bumper stickers, but we actually need to use the resources of these programs in a targeted way to compete more effectively with China. And that, I think, is a great example of where and how we can do that.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.