Solomon Islands and China Seek to Deepen Security Partnership, Unnerving Neighbors

On Thursday, a draft document outlining a security cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked online. The proposed agreement opens the possibility of a greater Chinese military presence on the islands, and potentially a Chinese military base, raising concerns among Western governments fearful of China’s expanding influence in the Pacific. Damien Cave from The New York Times described the contents of the secret agreement

The agreement, kept secret until now, was shared online Thursday night by opponents of the deal and verified as legitimate by the Australian government. Though it is marked as a draft and cites a need for “social order” as a justification for sending Chinese forces, it has set off alarms throughout the Pacific, where concerns about China’s intentions have been growing for years.

[…] The leaked document states that “Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property.”

It allows China to provide “assistance on other tasks” and requires secrecy, noting, “Neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party.”

[…] For Beijing, the deal could offer its own potential reward. “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands,” the draft states.

It also says the Solomons will provide “all necessary facilities.” [Source]

While it has yet to be confirmed by the cabinet of the Solomon Islands, the proposed agreement has come under strong criticism from Australian officials. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that it was “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it’s one that is adverse to Australia’s national security interests.” Defense Minister Peter Dutton stated that “we don’t want unsettling influences and we don’t want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China.” Nick Perry from the Associated Press described contrasting reactions from New Zealand and Chinese officials:

“If genuine, this agreement would be very concerning,” Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said. “Such agreements will always be the right of any sovereign country to enter into; however, developments within this purported agreement could destabilize the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security.”

Questioned about the agreement, China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing and the Solomons “conducted normal law enforcement and security cooperation on the basis of equal treatment and win-win cooperation.”

“This is in line with the international law and international practice, conducive to maintaining social order in the Solomon Islands and promoting peace and stability in the region, and helpful to enhance common interests of China and the Solomon Islands, as well as all countries in the region,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday. [Source]

The Solomon Islands government stated that the proposed agreement would help in “diversifying the country’s security partnership including with China” and that “broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.” Adding to the momentum, this month China delivered a secret shipment of hundreds of fake firearms to the Solomon Islands for use in police training. Paul Karp and Kate Lyons from the Guardian described other justifications, made by the Solomon Islands government, for increased cooperation with China:

“Solomon Islands continues to preserve its Security Agreement with Australia as it develops and deepens its relations with all partners including with China.”

However, the government added that it was “working to broaden its security and development cooperation with more countries”.

In a significant signal, the government statement referred at one point to Australia and China as “Solomon Islands two major partners”.

The government said the agreement with China had a “development dimension to it, covering humanitarian needs of the country besides maintaining rule of law” and was necessary given “the country is located in a global hotspot where the impact of climate change is three times the global average.”

“More development cooperation is being sought within and externally to ensure the country is put back on track especially during this difficult time with the impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives, building the economy including damages caused by the recent riots and looting and the population’s wellbeing.” [Source]

Last November, the Solomon Islands became engulfed in riots when protesters burned down numerous buildings in the capital’s Chinatown, stormed the parliament building, and ransacked police stations. China sent nine police officers to help the government improve their “anti-riot capabilities.” The chaos grew from a combination of domestic factors such as deep political rivalries and uneven distribution of government funds, and foreign factors such as Chinese and Taiwanese competition for influence and resource extraction. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s 2019 decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China acted as a major catalyst to the conflict.

As news of the proposed agreement spread through international media, there was some criticism of the panicked reactions from Western officials, whose paternalistic language obscured Solomon Islanders’ agency in determining the course of their own relations with different external actors. One such official was Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who declared: “That is our backyard. This is our neighbourhood and we are very concerned of any activity that is taking place in the Pacific Islands.” In The Conversation, University of Adelaide professors Joanne Wallis and Czeslaw Tubilewicz cautioned officials and observers to adopt a more nuanced approach that recognizes the complex interests of multiple actors, both foreign and domestic, some of whom may have purposely leaked the document

[The] draft agreement is primarily about Solomon Islands domestic politics – not just geopolitics.

[..] Neither Solomon Islanders (nor other Pacific peoples) are “passive dupes” to Chinese influence or unaware of geopolitical challenges – and opportunities. Some do, however, face resource and constitutional constraints when resisting influence attempts.

[…] The version [of the proposed agreement] circulating on social media may prove to be an early draft. Its leak is likely a bargaining tactic aimed at pursuing multiple agendas with multiple actors – including Australia.

[…] Influence is exercised not only by national governments, but also by a variety of non-state actors, including sub-national and community groups.

And targets of influence-seekers can exercise their agency. See, for example, how various actors in Solomon Islands are leveraging Australia, China and Taiwan’s overtures to the country. 

We must also consider how power affects the political norms and values guiding governing elites and non-state actors, potentially reshaping their identities and interests. [Source]

Meanwhile, competition for influence in the Pacific-Island region remains fierce. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced in February that the U.S. would open an embassy in the Solomon Islands, a move seen as a response to the increased Chinese presence there. This week the U.S. named an experienced senior diplomat to lead talks with Pacific Island nations about economic aid, yet another effort to counter China’s influence in the Pacific. Some commentators have wondered whether the gap between American spoken commitments and their actual implementation has only encouraged countries in the Global South such as the Solomon Islands to diversify their external partnerships by embracing China. Beyond the U.S., Taiwan and China have sparred over who should get credit for rescuing nine Papua New Guinean sailors lost at sea this past month. A Global Times article initially claimed Chinese credit, before Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called it “a blatant lie” and the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force confirmed that it had Taiwan to thank for the rescue.


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