Category : News
Author: Jon Fraenkel

OPINION: While Russia and the West focus on the conflict in Europe, the Pacific Rim powers are jockeying for influence on the other side of the globe. A leaked draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands government is prompting grave concern in Australia and New Zealand.

The deal, which has yet to be finalised by the Solomon Islands cabinet, allows the deployment of Chinese troops and other security personnel to keep the peace in Honiara, the capital city, but it has raised fears that this could be a precursor to the establishment of a Chinese military base in the Pacific. Security analyst Professor Anne-Marie Brady, of the University of Canterbury, says Australia and New Zealand risk being “cut off and encircled by the [Chinese] navy”, recalling the pivotal strategic significance of control over the waterways of the Western Pacific during World War II.

The realignment commenced with the Solomon Islands’ switch from its longstanding alliance with Taiwan to recognising China in 2019. That decision provoked the ire of former US vice-president Mike Pence, who lobbied furiously behind the scenes to avert the change.

It also prompted concerted resistance from the provincial government on the island of Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands, which denounced the new friendship with “atheists” and “Communists”. When Malaitans descended on Honiara in November last year, demanding that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare step down over the issue, riots ensued that culminated in the burning down of most of the city’s Chinatown district, a commercial hub of the capital.

In response, Australia and New Zealand sent in peacekeepers – once again – to quell the unrest. Brady says they thereby shot themselves in the foot by propping up a corrupt government that was already courting an alliance with China. In December, Sogavare survived a vote of no confidence, allegedly by releasing payments to MPs from a Beijing-bankrolled slush fund.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision in 2019, to switch from its longstanding alliance with Taiwan to recognising China, prompted protests, arson and looting in the capital, Honiara.

In fact, Australia had little choice but to respond as it did, owing to the security treaty it signed with the Solomon Islands government in 2017. Insofar as there were strategic errors, they came earlier. Australia and New Zealand previously led a Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi) from 2003-17, designed to quell five years of unrest on the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita and to train and equip the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF).


Ramsi succeeded in the former objective, largely through the actions of Australian Federal Police officers, but reconfiguring the RSIPF proved the more difficult task. The force barely has any presence outside the capital. It was easily overwhelmed by the November riots in eastern Honiara.

When Ramsi concluded in 2017, it was not because the RSIPF had developed the capacity to handle urban security independently, but because Australia reckoned it could better respond to periodic unrest by “over the horizon” deployments on the model of the British and French in West Africa.

NZ Defence Force personnel arriving in the Solomon Islands in December last year.

Ramsi was a mission undertaken under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2000 Biketawa Declaration, although the lines of command and control ran mostly from Canberra. The 2003 Ramsi Treaty was also a multilateral arrangement, signed off by seven of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) states.

The follow-up 2017 arrangement is a bilateral treaty, although it permits “third states” to join missions. It focused on the same thorny issues of the Ramsi years: namely, a Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) granting immunity from prosecution to foreign peacekeepers. It did not have the “strategic denial” provisions that characterise the American Compact of Free Association arrangements with the northern Micronesian states, which prohibit rival powers from gaining a foothold in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) or Palau.

Without the PIF signoff, Canberra has been unable to robustly oppose other states also signing bilateral arrangements with the Solomon Islands, or to argue that these undermine the region’s agreed security architecture.

The aftermath of the rioting in Honiara’s Chinatown district last November.

Still, Sogavare is playing with fire. He told the Solomon Islands parliament on March 29 that his country has a sovereign right to diversify its security arrangements, but seeking military alignments with both China and Australia/New Zealand makes it more – rather than less – likely that the country will ultimately be forced to choose sides.

In neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia and the United States are building a naval base on Manus Island. Australia is fixing ports and wharves around the coast, and funding a large electrification programme in the hope of drawing that country more firmly into the western orbit.

In the northern Pacific, the US plans a US$197 million tactical radar base. The Biden administration wants yet another US base in nearby FSM. Other island states have tacked closer to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s preferred course of seeking to avoid militarisation of the region.

Australian soldiers and federal police patrolling the streets of Honiara after November’s riots.

The paradox is that Sogavare wants security assistance to deal with domestic difficulties, in particular the continuing weakness of the RSIPF and the ever-present threat of riots in Honiara, but he cannot escape the fact that his larger allies have wider geostrategic objectives.

The Solomon Islands-China draft security arrangement does not open the door for the Chinese navy. It does anticipate “ship visits” and deployments to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”, but any actual mission requires a further signoff between the two states. So far, no naval base is envisaged.

Yet it is a sign of heightened strategic competition in the Southwest Pacific. Australia recently funded Telstra to take over Digicel’s Pacific operations to ward off further Chinese involvement in the telecommunications sector. The Pacific’s submarine cable network is being carved into the contours of geostrategic rivalry, with Australia gazumping Huawei’s (now HMN Tech’s) efforts to connect the Southwest Pacific in 2018 and to lay a link with Nauru in 2021.

Not everything is going Beijing’s way. Its aid to the region has been declining since 2018. Chinese firms have struggled to make headway in PNG. Australia has redoubled efforts to counter Beijing’s soft loan funded infrastructure deals with its own costly package of concessional lending.

Both Canberra and Wellington have been pouring budget support into the region to deal with the fallout from Covid-19, abandoning their former insistence on “good governance” and project spending with close donor oversight. Many Pacific Island states long ago learnt the art of playing off rival donor powers, but now they are being asked to pay a heavier strategic price.


Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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