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Big-Power Shenanigans in the Solomon Islands
The maritime Belt and Road initiative attracts Australia’s attention
By: Hamish McDonald
In the Pacific, as in Africa, nothing renews the interest of traditional Western patrons and aid donors like the arrival of the People’s Republic of China on the scene. Indeed, as news was breaking of a proposed Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands last Thursday, the country’s Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, had a visit in his capital Honiara from Lachlan Strahan, the Australian high commissioner.
The envoy told the prime minister that an Australian-led security force of some 200 police and soldiers, sent in last November to quell rioting designed to topple Sogavare, would remain in the Solomons until the end of 2023. In addition, the high commissioner said Australia would build a new radio network across the country, construct a new patrol boat base, and provide A$21 million in extra budget support.
Thus, less than a decade after the end of the 11-year, A$3 billion operation known as the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands or RAMSI – organized by Australia to rebuild the state after it nearly fell apart from ethnic civil war – Canberra is embarked on what could be a new, long-term RAMSI.
After Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, getting an immediate reward in pledges to reopen a big gold mine and build a stadium for the 2023 Pacific mini-Olympiad, his island country of about 700,000 people has enjoyed a new burst of attention from Australia and its allies.
Hence the prompt dispatch of forces to save Sogavare last November and the continued flow of aid from Canberra, along with a decision to reopen a United States embassy in Honiara announced in February by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
On coming to office in 2018, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, had China in mind when he announced a “Pacific Step-Up” to draw the regional vuvale (Fijian for family) closer into Australia’s orbit.
It has been an expensive process.
Canberra’s foreign aid budget for the Pacific region has risen from an annual A$1.12 billion to A$1.7 billion since then. In addition, it has opened a A$2 billion credit line for infrastructure projects, put A$1 billion into subsidizing a takeover of Digicel, the region’s biggest cell-phone operator by Telstra (the main Australian telco), and A$130 million into fiber-optic cables linking Papua New Guinea and the Solomons to Sydney – all aimed at edging out China.
And it has not stopped China. With this kind of money flowing, why would Sogavare and other Pacific leaders want to remove the specter of Chinese influence, especially when they can get Chinese largesse as well?
With the new security deal, however, a draft of which was leaked by a pro-Taipei rival camp in the Solomons based in the restive island of Malaita, the game might have been taken too far, too early.
The draft memorandum says China’s navy may "make ship visits, to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands." Beijing could deploy forces to "protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands." The Solomon Islands may "request China to send police, armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement and armed forces" to the country.
Fevered media reports in Australia soon had China on the point of establishing a military “base” in the Solomons, “only 2,000 km from Australia’s east coast” and poised to control Pacific lines of communication. To some, it recalled Imperial Japan’s advance down the island chain in 1942, turned back in the Solomons by US marines and sailors.
In 2020, an official “Strategic Update” by Canberra outlined Australian concern about the possibility of “establishment of military bases, which could undermine stability in the Indo-Pacific and our immediate region.” Last year, New Zealand’s Defense Assessment said that if a state that didn’t share New Zealand’s values and security interests set up a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific, it “would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region.” Now, it seemed to some, this nightmare was about to happen.
Jonathan Pryke, head of the Pacific program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, pointed out it could be a long time before any presence hardened incrementally to this extent, and the draft read more like a Chinese “wish-list” than a fully-negotiated agreement.
But after years of China declaring itself a “benign actor” it was a marked change, showing in “black and white” a new intent. “In a sense, it has done a favor to the Australian government and a disservice to China, because it removes strategic ambiguity and reveals that intent,” Pryke said.
Sogavare’s government insists it will continue negotiating the security agreement with China, despite warnings from Australia and New Zealand. It claims the pact will simply put China in the same partnership with Australia.
With Morrison’s government having had no ministerial contact with Beijing for nearly three years thanks to its clumsy diplomacy, pressure on China itself will be left to New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, and possibly Blinken.
Up until recently, the Chinese government kept a cautious profile in the South Pacific. It ran a modest aid program, peaking at US$246 million in 2018, one focused on showy hard items like government offices and sports facilities, though it had begun also to cooperate with Australia on malaria eradication. Assistance to the region’s small military forces comprised things like uniforms, vehicles, and small arms. The main irritant was irregular migration of traders from Fujian, crowding out locals from small-scale enterprises.
But in recent months, China’s PLA Navy has appeared. One of two warships transiting the Torres Strait shone a high-powered laser at an Australian air force P-8 that was dropping sonar buoys to collect their audio signatures. Two navy ships delivered aid to Tonga after the tsunami disaster in January.
Sogavare will be reluctant to tell China to tone it all down, not least because he may be relying on Chinese help in the perpetual Melanesian political play where party lines are fluid and loyalties open to bidding. According to Malaita Provincial Premier Daniel Suidani, Chinese operatives provided bribes for members of parliament who supported Sogavare in a no-confidence motion brought after November’s riots.
He may also see a possible need for Chinese forces to help keep the Solomon Islands together at some point. Suidani is trying to organize a referendum on Malaita’s secession. In the far north, in Sogavare’s home region of Choiseul and the Shortland Islands, many people think of joining their closely-related people on Bougainville Island, who voted by 98 percent in a 2018 referendum to secede from Papua New Guinea, a result still needing to be ratified by PNG’s parliament.
As a nation and a state, the Solomon Islands remain a work in progress. Reluctantly made a protectorate by Britain in 1883, chiefly to stop Imperial Germany moving in, the disparate islands were left to planters and missionaries until the Japanese arrived. When they did, over the next four years, a series of pitched battles saw 86,000 Japanese troops killed along with 10,600 allied ones. The Japanese lost 1,500 aircraft and 50 plus ships, while the allies lost 40 ships and 800 planes. After 1945, a burst of education and political development got the Solomons barely prepared for independence in 1978.
But aside from jawboning on security, and upping the ante on aid, it is unclear what Canberra and Wellington will do. One China specialist, Anne-Marie Brady at Christchurch University, criticized “an over-emphasis on sovereignty being a barrier to doing anything about the crisis” and said there were “a thousand ways” to support the Solomons people without shoring up a Chinese stooge. “Australia and New Zealand are studiously avoiding any of these ways,” she said.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s approaches in the Solomons have been a political gift to Scott Morrison. Well behind in the opinion polls ahead of elections expected in May, he’s been at risk of looking like the boy who cried wolf on defense and security. Now a snout has appeared.