The Sino-American competition in the Pacific region: the case of the Solomon Islands

The map of the Solomon Islands (Credits: Burmesedays, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 2
Author: Luca Urciuolo

Eight countries in 10 days to bring home a comprehensive economic security agreement to establish the primacy of Beijing’s influence in the region.[1] It is officially called the “Common Development Vision.” It is the Chinese response to the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework), the strategy of “containment” set up by Washington to counter the rise of Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi presented it on an extended tour (from May 26th to June 4th) between Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, East Timor, Tonga, and Vanuatu. In the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia, on the other hand, the plan will be presented by videoconference. According to the draft agreement – the details of which have not been disclosed – the action plan, in five years, it would allow the Chinese government to provide training to local police forces while providing cooperation in different matters, from computer support to infrastructure development. However, it would not include security.[2]

Just enough to alarm the United States and its allies, Australia in the first place, until a few years ago, the only guarantors of the security of the island states of the Pacific, but that Beijing has skillfully “dubbed” thanks to a massive investment policy in the region. Huge enough to have led just one month to the signing of the first bilateral security agreement never signed between China and the Solomon Islands. The fear of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand is that this agreement is the first step to securing a military base in the archipelago, just 2,000 kilometres from the east coast of Australia; moreover, it is only the first in a long series.

The Chinese interests in the region

China has been engaging with the South Pacific for more than three decades through regional forums, such as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum (EDCF). Last year, China and Pacific island countries held the inaugural foreign ministers’ meeting and vowed to boost cooperation in areas including poverty reduction and climate change.[3] China’s growing presence is also demonstrated by its substantial aid; China has been the second-largest donor in the Pacific after Australia over the past decade.

The Chinese government views the Pacific Island region as an essential component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Specifically, it sees the region as a critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road, connecting Asia with Central and South America. By 2021, China had signed BRI cooperation documents with all ten Pacific island countries with which it has established diplomatic relations.

China’s direct investment in Pacific Island countries rose from $900 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion in 2018, a 400 per cent increase. Chinese companies invested more than $2 billion in Pacific mining over the past two decades. Additionally, Beijing has expressed vital interest in the region’s fisheries, aquaculture, harbour construction, and other related areas.[4] From 2010 to 2020, total trade in fishery products between China and the Pacific Islands increased from $35 million to $112 million. By the end of that period, eleven Chinese enterprises had invested in the fisheries industry across six Pacific Island countries.

For decades, the region has been at the centre of a diplomatic contest over Taiwan.[5] Only four Pacific Island countries maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan: the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati were the latest to switch their ties from Taipei to Beijing in 2019. In the case of the Solomon Islands, Beijing promised about $730 million in financial aid. The move triggered violent anti-government unrest in the Solomon Islands that killed four people and prompted China to offer anti-riot gear and send a team of six police liaison officers to equip and train Solomon Islands police.

The China-Solomon Islands security pact is likely driven by the Chinese government’s sense of vulnerability in the region rather than by a Chinese grand strategy. Civil unrest targeting China-funded projects in other countries, combined with China’s deteriorating relations with the United States and U.S. allies in the region, is likely to have motivated Chinese policymakers to seek means to protect Beijing’s overseas interests. [6]

The China-Solomon Islands security pact: new tensions in the Pacific region

The security pact between China and Solomon Islands signed in April reflects Beijing’s longtime engagement with and growing influence in the South Pacific. Since President Xi Jinping took office, the Chinese government has elevated China’s diplomatic partnership with the region twice. This pact has sent alarm bells ringing in Australia and the United States is not the first security agreement China has inked with a Pacific nation. For instance, Beijing and Fiji signed a memorandum of understanding centred around police cooperation in 2011 and another deal in 2014 on defence issues such as border control, equipment, and training.

Nevertheless, experts say the deal signed by Beijing and Honiara last month is “qualitatively different,” and the geopolitical context has changed.[7]

The draft agreement between China and the Solomon Islands focuses on boosting the latter’s national security capacity. It also includes cooperation in humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and maintaining social order, among other areas. A clause in the agreement says that China can “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands” and send Chinese forces to the country to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.” [8] This has stoked concerns in the United States and its allies in the region that China could send troops to the Solomon Islands and establish a permanent military base there, less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia.

However, Beijing and Honiara have dismissed these speculations.[9] Before signing the pact on March 30th, 2022, China sent nine police officers to the Solomon Islands in January 2022. They provided training to the Solomon Islands police force on public management, riot response, and other tactical programs. The training was questioned by some opposition parliamentarians concerned about the impact on the country’s police, which Australia and New Zealand have traditionally trained. Another task of the Chinese police team is to provide diplomatic security to its embassy and offer security advice to Chinese companies and migrants.

More broadly, the growth of China’s engagement with the Solomon Islands has been impressive since the latter switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in September 2019. Less than three years later, the relationship covers a wide range of high-level meetings, infrastructure support, sister-city relations (for example, between Honiara and Jiangmen in Guangdong), medical team, and COVID-19 assistance. The Chinese embassy has also donated materials and equipment like diesel fuel, agricultural contractors, and sewing machines.

The highlight of the bilateral relationship thus far is the China-funded sports stadium and facilities in Honiara, which will be used for the 2023 Pacific Games. The two countries are seemingly still in a honeymoon period.[10]

How should the United States and its allies react?

The United States expressed commercial and security interests in the region can be traced back to 1825.[11] The U.S. has a robust military presence in the area through the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, with about 375,000 military and civilian personnel, 2,460 aircraft, and 200 naval vessels, including five aircraft carrier strike groups.[12] Under the Joe Biden administration, the Pentagon has prioritised building up U.S. military bases in Guam and Australia to offset China’s influence.[13] Meanwhile, Palau has offered to host U.S. bases on its territory.[14]

The Solomon Islands are strategically located in the Pacific. The United States and its regional allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, are concerned that the China-Solomon Islands security pact allows Chinese naval vessels to replenish there. That could open the door to a Chinese naval base, significantly extending China’s military reach in the South Pacific.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong of Australia’s newly elected Labor Government said the Pacific was “the top priority of her term” after calling the China-Solomon Pact “Australia’s biggest strategic mistake since World War II” and announcing that it would undertake to oppose it. Just back from the Quad Summit in Tokyo with leaders from the United States, Japan, and India, Wong flew to the Fiji Islands to meet Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama before also leaving for a tour in the region ahead of the South Pacific Forum to which join 16 island states in addition to Australia and New Zealand. The parallel visits of the two Foreign Ministers make good the growing competition in foreign and trade policy in relations with the closest neighbours. After the mea culpa for the “lost decade” by Australia as a reference partner in the Pacific during the conservative government of Scott Morrison, Wong did not spare shots at Beijing, pointing out that Australia is a “partner that does not impose unsustainable financial burdens,” that “does not erode the priorities or the institutions of the Pacific” and “believes in transparency.” [15]

Therefore, the United States and its allies should balance the rhetoric about the new security pact and its potential threat to U.S. interests with a strategy for renewed engagement in the region. The United States closed its embassy in the Solomon Islands in 1993, one example of its neglect of the area in recent decades, whereas China has increased its influence. Plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands and invite Pacific leaders to Washington are a good start but not enough.[16] The United States should also coordinate with its regional allies, partners, and the private sector to reestablish a credible presence in the region and provide alternatives to China’s financial resources.

Conclusion

A silver lining to the pact issue is that the Solomon Islands will likely receive more attention and support from external players. The pact has come at a critical time when the Pacific region faces growing pressure from traditional and non-traditional challenges, including climate change, geopolitical rivalry, illegal fishing, COVID-19, and the disintegration of the Pacific Islands Forum. The pact will bring fresh eyes to China and newly re-engaged traditional partners to some domestic priority areas needing urgent attention in the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands government seeks to alter the sense of doing business as usual to achieve elevated progress in capacity building, response, and preparedness for domestic uncertainties. To what extent the Solomon Islands can successfully deal with China remains to be seen.

The Solomon Islands will receive more of Canberra’s attention from Australia’s perspective. Likely, traditional donors will further step-up engagement with the Pacific region in the wake of the deal. Alarmed by the security pact, the United States is expected to enhance its diplomatic, aid, and economic relations with the Solomon Islands. The U.S. proposal to reopen its embassy in Honiara will significantly facilitate this engagement process. Back in 2019, the Solomon Islands parliamentary task force established to advise the government on whether to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing criticised the United States for its neglect of economic development in the Solomon Islands.[17]

In the short to medium term, traditional powers and other Pacific island countries will watch closely whether China will seek to build a military base in the Solomon Islands. The U.S. government has warned that they will “respond accordingly” if this occurs.[18] The Australian government refers to such a base establishment as a red line. A Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands will significantly increase China’s military projection power in a region regarded by traditional powers as their sphere of influence. It will exacerbate the existing geostrategic tensions between China and traditional powers and further split the Pacific region. By then, Pacific island countries may likely have to take sides.

Sources

[1] Simone McCarthy (2022) China plays for influence in South Pacific with security proposal and diplomatic tour. CNN. Link. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/26/asia/china-pacific-islands-security-pact-wang-yi-tour-intl-hnk/index.html

[2] Reuters (2022) China and Pacific Islands unable to reach consensus on security pact. CNBC. Link: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/30/china-and-pacific-islands-unable-to-reach-consensus-on-security-pact.html

[3] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2019) Joint Statement of China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Link. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202110/t20211021_9604831.html

[4] Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2021) The First China-Pacific Island Countries Forum on Fishery Cooperation and Development Held. Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Link. http://english.moa.gov.cn/news_522/202112/t20211210_300762.html

[5] Lindsay Maizland (2022) Why China-Taiwan Relations Are so Tense. Council on Foreign Relations. Link. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations-tension-us-policy-biden

[6] Zongyuan Zoe Liu (2022) What the China-Solomon Islands Pact Means for the U.S. and South Pacific. Council on Foreign Relations. Link. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/china-solomon-islands-security-pact-us-south-pacific

[7] Marian Faa (2022) Why Solomon Islands’ deal with Beijing is different to past agreements with Pacific nations. News. Link. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-05-06/beijings-previous-security-deals-pacific-nations-solomon-islands/101041384

[8] Kate Lyons, Dorothy Wickham (2022) The deal that shocked the world: inside the China-Solomons security pact. The Guardian. Link. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/20/the-deal-that-shocked-the-world-inside-the-china-solomons-security-pact

[9] See Bloomberg News (2022) China Says Reports of Naval Base on Solomon Islands “Fake News”. Bloomberg. Link. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-28/china-says-reports-of-naval-base-on-solomon-islands-fake-news?sref=vxSzVDP0; Eva Corlett, Daniel Hurst (2022) Solomon Islands prime minister says foreign criticism of China security deal “very insulting.” The Guardian. Link. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/29/solomon-islands-prime-minister-says-foreign-criticism-of-china-security-deal-very-insulting

[10] Denghua Zhang, Lincy Pendeverana, Walter Diamana (2022) What Do China and Solomon Islands Get From Their Security Pact? The Diplomat. Link. https://thediplomat.com/2022/05/what-do-china-and-solomon-islands-get-from-their-security-pact/

[11] John Quincy Adams (1825) First State of the Nation, Washington, DC, 1825-12-06. American History – From Revolution to Reconstruction and beyond. Link. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/john-quincy-adams/state-of-the-nation-1825.php

[12] U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (2022) Headquarters, United States Indo-Pacific Command. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Link. https://www.pacom.mil/About-USINDOPACOM/

[13] Ellie Kaufman (2021) Pentagon to build up US bases in Guam and Australia to meet China challenge. CNN. Link. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/29/politics/global-posture-review-china/index.html

[14] Bernadette Carreon (2020) Pacific nation of Palau invites US to build a military base to counter China. The Guardian. Link. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/04/pacific-nation-of-palau-invites-us-to-build-a-military-base-to-counter-china

[15] Alessia De Luca (2022) Cina e Stati Uniti: in rotta sul Pacifico. Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale. Link https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/cina-e-stati-uniti-rotta-sul-pacifico-35214

[16] Rob Garver (2022) US to Invite Pacific Leaders to White House, Increase Diplomatic Outreach. VOA. Link. https://www.voanews.com/a/us-to-invite-pacific-leaders-to-white-house-increase-diplomatic-outreach-/6554718.html

[17] Dengua Zhang (2019) Perceiving China’s Influence in the Pacific: The Case of Solomon Islands. The Diplomat. Link. https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/perceiving-chinas-influence-in-the-pacific-the-case-of-solomon-islands/

[18] Denghua Zhang, Lincy Pendeverana, Walter Diamana (2022) op. cit.


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