Why the Solomon Islands’ China Pact Has U.S. Riled
Why the Solomon Islands’ China Pact Has U.S. Riled
(Bloomberg) -- The Solomon Islands has sent shock waves across the Pacific by signing a security cooperation pact with China. The island nation had faced pressure not to sign it from its traditional allies, Australia and the U.S., as they seek to counter China’s growing influence across Asia. The Solomon Islands’ leader has insisted the pact won’t undermine regional “peace and harmony,” and accused Western countries of treating the Solomons like children. That hasn’t squelched concerns about a possible Chinese naval base just 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia.
1. What’s the pact about?
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on April 19 -- the day the pact was announced -- that the cooperation would include “maintenance of social order, protection and safety of people’s lives and property, humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response, to help Solomon Islands strengthen capacity building and safeguard its own security.” According to an Associated Press report, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told his parliament in Honiara a day later that it will allow China to send police and military personnel to the Solomon Islands “to assist in maintaining social order.” Chinese warships also could stop in port for “logistical replenishment.” Sogavare has insisted the pact would not allow China to construct a military base -- a concern that arose after a draft copy was leaked online in late March -- and has strongly asserted his country’s right to an independent foreign policy. In a fiery May 3 speech, he said the Solomon Islands was being treated as “kindergarten students walking around with Colt 45s in our hands” who needed “to be supervised.”
2. How did the deal come about?
Chinese diplomats have been wooing Sogavare for years and he has reciprocated by strengthening relations, including a contentious decision to switch the country’s diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in September 2019. That change has been one of the factors in growing domestic unrest between Sogavare’s government and the province of Malaita, the most-populous island with a third of the nation’s 650,000 people. Daniel Suidani, who leads Malaita, has been a vocal critic of the switch to decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Last year, anti-China protesters demanded Sogavare’s resignation, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, while the Solomon Islands Herald said shops in the capital’s Chinatown were looted and damaged. Sogavare asked for Australian troops to help quell the unrest even as he accused “other powers” of encouraging the anti-China sentiment. A few months later came the security pact with China.
3. What’s the significance?
China has long been trying to beef up its presence in the Asia-Pacific, including building up its navy and constructing military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea. War hawks in Australia and the U.S. have warned that this security cooperation pact could pave the way for Chinese military hardware and eventually a naval base in the South Pacific, although that’s not the immediate case now. In announcing the pact in Beijing, Wang had criticized Western efforts to block it, saying: “We must point out that South Pacific island countries are not a backyard of any country, still less a pawn for geopolitical rivalry.”
4. What about the U.S.?
The U.S. has long touted its alliances in the Pacific as part of efforts to counter the growing economic, political and military influence of China in the region. They include a new defense accord with Australia and the U.K., known as Aukus, sealed last year and an older grouping known as the Quad that includes Australia, Japan and India. President Joe Biden’s East Asia czar Kurt Campbell visited the islands on April 22 and had what a White House statement afterward called a “substantial discussion” with Sogavare about the pact. It said the U.S. had expressed “clear areas of concern” and that Sogavare had “reiterated his specific assurances that there would be no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability” for China. It added that the U.S. would “respond accordingly” should such a base or capability be established. Sogavare said after the meeting that the Solomon Islands won’t allow China “or any other countries for that matter to establish its military base here.”
5. What does this mean for Australia?
The Australian government, to which the South Pacific region has long looked for support, expressed concern that the deal could “undermine stability” and make the Solomon Islands beholden to China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has echoed Campbell’s assertion that a de facto permanent Chinese presence would be a red line, but denied there was a growing rift with Sogavare’s government. More immediately, the deal could become an issue in Australia’s May 21 national elections. Morrison has portrayed himself as tough on national security, but the diplomatic loss is providing ammunition for attacks on his government’s record. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong called the signing of the security agreement the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.” A poll published May 5 showed 71% of voters said they were concerned about the deal, but neither party was overwhelmingly trusted to resolve the situation.
The Reference Shelf
- A blog post from the Lowy Institute on the security pact, and a list of more reports on the Solomon Islands.
- A Guardian report on the process leading up to the signing of the pact.
- Bloomberg Opinion’s Ruth Pollard on why the deal is a blow to the U.S. and Australia.
- Another QuickTake on Aukus, the Quad and Five Eyes; and another on Australia’s election.
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