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Solomon-Beijing Pact: Security For One, Anxiety For Others

The Solomon Islands' proposed security treaty with China could upset the balance that has prevailed in the region.

While the world was focused on the largest nation's invasion of its neighbor, a tiny island nation caused a tectonic shift in the Pacific region's balance.

Reports that the Solomon Islands was close to finalizing a security treaty with China raised the alarm. Interestingly, the news was based on leaked documents and not official communiqués. Since then, Honiara has confirmed the reports.

The Republic

The small island nation is situated in the Pacific Ocean and lies 1,240 miles northeast of Australia. After achieving independence from the British in 1978, the republic has been a member of the Commonwealth. With a population of about 800,000, the island has a constitutional monarchy with one legislative house.

The Security Treaty Draft

While it is not yet clear whether the leaked draft is the final version, the broad scope and ambiguities in the proposed security treaty have far-reaching consequences for the region. For instance, the Solomon Islands could "request China to send police, armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement and armed forces." The current version of the treaty permits China to "make ship visits, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands."

The document states that Chinese forces would be permitted to ensure "the safety of Chinese personnel" and "major projects in the Solomon Islands." Further, neither country can disclose mission details publicly without the other party's written consent. Such a secrecy clause is troubling for those who view Beijing's intentions with skepticism.

From WWII to the present day, Australia has been the island republic's primary development partner and sole security provider. The proposed comprehensive and expansive security treaty with Beijing is much larger in scope than the one currently in place with Canberra. Australia, so far the only security partner for the island, provides security and peacekeeping personnel based on the agreement between the two countries.

Ties between Honiara and Beijing had been getting warmer. In 2019, the Solomon Islands cut off relations with Taiwan and established formal diplomatic ties with China. The unpopular decision led to riots in the island republic. Australian police were sent to bring the riots under control. About fifty of them remain on the island and will do so until 2023.

 House of Parliament in Honiara, Solomon Islands, Dan Hetherington, Wikimedia Commons
The inside of the House of Parliament in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Upsetting The Pacific Balance

Beijing's security pact is seen as a great upset in the largely benign region. Though diplomats and analysts agree that there is no immediate threat, China's extending its presence into the geographical location is a cause for concern.

For one, Beijing's hegemonic plans to dominate the South China Sea are no secret. Second, China sees the AUKUS, of which Australia is an integral part, as a threat to its control over the region. Under the circumstances, having a base close to the nation-continent would be high on the Chinese military's wish list.

Thirdly, though a military base is a merely conjecture at this point, the possibility of it cannot be ruled out. The proposed pact has a clause that allows Chinese naval ships to "stopover and transition." Many see this as a precursor to setting up a military base. Beijing has already militarized contested islands in the South China Sea. Further, unrestricted or broad-ranging Chinese naval and military access to the Solomon Islands could, in effect, cut off free access to the region for other countries. Analysts foresee China using its access to Solomon Island ports and international waters to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance.

New Zealand has already cited the "potential militarization of the region." The Australian Defense Minister said, "We don't want unsettling influences and we don't want pressure and coercion that we are seeing from China continuing to roll out in the region."

Economy

While confirming that talks are underway to ink a security pact with Beijing, Honiara stressed that the partnership will have a "development dimension." The island’s government said that trade expansion and a civil aviation services agreement were also on the cards.

One of the poorest Asian nations, the Republic has a predominantly subsistence economy. The islands are estimated to have significant bauxite, phosphate, and gold reserves.

According to estimates, in 2018, 67% of its exports were to China. Australia accounted for 18% of imports, while Beijing held a 15% share of goods sent to the island.

Canberra Dropped The Ball

The latest development is seen by many as a significant failure on Canberra's part. Australia launched the 'Pacific Step Up' policy to counter Beijing's influence and save vulnerable nations from its "debt-trap" ridden Belt and Road Initiative. It had offered $1.5 billion in infrastructure financing to the Pacific islands. Canberra also footed the bill for a fiber optic submarine cable connecting the Solomon Islands to Australia and won the bid from Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Despite Australia being the island republic's largest aid donor and their historical ties, Honiara is now looking to "diversify the country's relationship with other countries." Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told the nation's parliament that it was "very insulting... to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs."

With the treaty in place, which Prime Minister Sogavare claims is "ready for signing," China would have open access to a region that has remained largely peaceful. Despite the anti-China sentiment prevalent on the island, for now, Beijing will make inroads into the island and, in time, farther into the Pacific.


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