WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A China-Solomon Islands security alliance has sent shudders across the South Pacific, with many fearing it could spark a large-scale military buildup or that Western hostility to the deal could play into China’s hands.
Above all, the extent of Chinese ambitions remains unclear.
A Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would not only put it on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also close to Guam with its vast US military bases.
So far, China only operates one recognized foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important nation of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Many believe that China’s People’s Liberation Army is busy building a foreign military network, even though they don’t use the term “base.”
The Solomon Islands government presents a draft of their agreement with China was initialed last week and is due to be “cleaned up” and signed shortly.
The draft, which has been leaked online, says Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Islands for “logistical replenishment” and that China could deploy police, military personnel and other forces to the Solomon Islands “to help maintain social order.”
The draft agreement stipulates that China must approve what information is disclosed about joint security arrangements, including at media briefings.
The Solomon Islands, home to about 700,000 people, shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 – a move opposed by the most populous province and a factor contributing to last November’s unrest.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded in February that Washington would reopen its embassy in the capital Honiara, which has been closed since 1993 to increase its influence in the Solomon Islands before becoming “heavily embedded” in China.
Both China and the Solomon Islands have firmly denied that the new pact will lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base. The Solomon Islands government said the pact was necessary because of its limited ability to deal with violent uprisings like the one in November.
“The country has been ruined by recurring internal violence for years,” the government said this week.
But Australia, New Zealand and the US have all expressed their concerns about the deal, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling it “of serious concern”.
David Panuelo, the president of nearby Micronesia, which has close ties to the US, wrote an impassioned letter to Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, urging him to reconsider the deal.
He noted that both Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlefields involved in the clash between major powers during World War II.
“I am confident that none of us ever want to see a conflict of this magnitude or magnitude again, and especially in our own backyards,” Panuelo wrote.
But the Solomon Islands police minister mocked Panuelo’s concerns on social media, saying he should be more worried about his own atoll being swallowed up by the ocean due to climate change.
Sogavare has also dismissed foreign criticism of the security agreement as offensive, while calling those who leaked the draft “lunatics”.
The spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the deal aims to ensure the safety of people’s lives and property and has “no military overtones,” saying media speculation about the potential development of a base is unfounded.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said China has been seeking such a port facility for about five years to expand its naval presence in the South Pacific as part of Beijing’s long-game bid to become the dominant regional power.
“If they want to go into the Pacific, eventually they’re going to need the logistical capacity to support that presence,” Graham said. “We’re not talking about war plans here; this is really about expanding their presence and influence.”
Unlike the base being built in Djibouti, where China has commercial interests to protect in the region, Graham said any operation in the Solomon Islands would likely be smaller.
“It’s quite a subtle and interesting geopolitical game that emerged in the South Pacific,” he added. “And I think the Chinese have been very successful, if you will, in outstripping the United States and Australia in an influence contest, not a military contest.”
China’s base in Djibouti opened in 2017. China describes it not as a base but as a support facility for its naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and for its African peacekeeping operations. It has a 400-meter (1,300-foot) runway and a pier large enough to dock either of China’s two operational aircraft carriers.
The 2,000-strong base allows China to position supplies, troops and equipment in a strategically important region while keeping an eye on US forces stationed nearby.
Notable among other potential base candidates is Cambodia, whose authoritarian leader Hun Sen has long been a trusted Chinese ally and reportedly signed a secret accord in 2019 allowing the establishment of a Chinese base.
China is dredging the port of Ream Naval Base to allow ships larger than Cambodia has and building new infrastructure to replace a US-built naval tactical headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia would establish a gorge in the Gulf of Thailand near the crucial Malacca Straits.
China has also funded projects in Gwadar in Pakistan, another close ally, and in Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure loans have forced the government to cede control of the southern port of Hambantota.
Particularly intriguing was an alleged Chinese push to establish a base in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. That would give China an Atlantic presence off the east coast of the continental United States, as well as in a key African oil-producing region.
“China has seized opportunities to expand its influence at a time when the US and other countries were not as heavily involved economically in the Pacific islands,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, senior Chinese foreign policy expert at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Some 80 years ago, in the Solomon Islands, the US military began its famous World War II “island hopping” campaign to retake Pacific islands one by one from Imperial Japanese forces. It recaptured the main island of Guadalcanal in February 1943 after about six months of bitter fighting.
Today, the Solomon Islands would give China a potential opportunity to intervene in US naval operations in the region, which could be crucial in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or in the South and East China Seas.
Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton, Australia’s head of joint operations, said if Chinese naval vessels could operate from the Solomon Islands it would “change the calculus”.
“They are obviously much closer to mainland Australia and that would change the way we would conduct our day-to-day operations, particularly in the air and at sea,” he told reporters.
But Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said he thinks leaders have overreacted to the deal, perhaps in Australia’s case, because an election is coming up.
“It clearly makes everyone in the West very animated and very alarmed,” Pryke said. “But I don’t think it changes things noticeably on the ground.”
He said the pact can be seen as a first step in China’s establishment of a base, but many more steps need to be taken before that can happen.
“I think alarmism has strengthened China’s hand by cornering the Solomon Islands,” Pryke said. “And they’ve responded in the way I imagine a lot of countries would respond if they got that outside pressure – by pushing back and digging in their heels.”
Rising reports from Bangkok.