China’s Security Pact With the Solomon Islands: What to Know

CTuesday night, hina made public its agreement with the Solomon Islands to secure their security. The agreement, Beijing says, is to promote peace and stability and runs “parallel and complimentary” to existing cooperation arrangements with the Solomons—an archipelagic country of almost 1,000 tropical islands and atolls, situated between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

This news came one day after the U.S. had announced it would send an official delegation to South Pacific countries to force them to cancel the deal. Led by assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, and the National Security Council’s (NSC) Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, the delegation had hoped to make the case that the U.S. could “deliver prosperity, security, and peace across the Pacific Islands and the Indo-Pacific.”

There is growing concern that Beijing will gain a foothold within the region by signing the new pact. Last week, Australia’s Pacific minister, Zed Seselja, visited the Solomons and asked its leaders to “consider” not signing the agreement. He made the trip even though his government is preparing to fight a general election—by convention, a time when diplomatic outreach is suspended.

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It’s rare that the South Pacific attracts such diplomatic courting. Although the U.S. had its Honiara, Solomons capital, embassy closed 29 years ago. The U.S. promised to reopen the embassy this February. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary-of-State visited Fiji for almost 40 years that month.

The fear that a new front in geopolitical competition between China and Western countries has opened is behind the activity.

An unverified “draft” of China’s security agreement with the Solomons began circulating online late last month, causing a furore over its purported terms, which included the potential deployment of Chinese security forces to maintain “social order” in response to requests from the government of the Solomons.

Regardless of the document’s veracity, the response to it reflects deep-rooted concern over the future balance of power in the Pacific. As Dr Anna Powles, the New Zealand security academic who circulated the document, said on Twitter: “If it isn’t authentic, it still provides some interesting insights into how geopolitical dynamics are playing out.”

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, tells TIME that “the manner and timing of the announcement” are significant. “Beijing unilaterally announced the signing just ahead of the U.S. delegation’s visit to Solomon Islands,” he tells TIME. “I think that is not a coincidence.”

Here’s what to know about the agreement.

Why are there concerns about the Solomon Islands agreement with China?

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on April 18 that the agreement left “open the door for the deployment of China’s military forces to the Solomon Islands” and “set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region.”

After the signing, an NSC spokesperson told Reuters the agreement “follows a pattern of China offering shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation in fishing, resource management, development assistance and now security practices.”

The agreement’s text was not made available to the public by either Price or the NSC official.

Australia and New Zealand have expressed concerns about the proposed partnership because they might permit a Chinese military presence to be established in an area that is historically within their control.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister Marise Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that there was “a lack of transparency in relation to this agreement.”

New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern echoed the sentiment. “We see such acts as a potential militarization of the region and also see very little reason in terms of the Pacific security for such a need and such a presence,” she told Radio NZ.

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However, Prime Minister Manasseh SOGAVARE of the Solomon Islands has criticised such reactions. In an address to parliament on March 29, he said “We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs, or [to] have other motives in pursuing our national interests.”

He added that the country would not allow China to build a military base, but at the same the Solomon Islands needed to “diversify” its relationships with “other partners.”

Canberra has an bilateral security agreement signed with China. It also stated earlier that it will continue cooperation with Solomon Islands even though the China-China pact is not yet in force. On Wednesday, Scott Morrison was criticized for failing to send the senior Payne instead of Seselja as Pacific minister to win Honiara. Penny Wong, the opposition party’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, told ABC News that it was the “worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War Two.”

Kabutaulaka believes that the security accord shows that the regional balance of power has been disturbed. “China is a power that is here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future, and has disrupted Western countries’ dominance of the region.”

What is the Solomon Islands’ need for a security agreement?

The Solomon Islands changed diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Taiwan is considered a separatist province by China. China has been increasing economic relations since, including the Solomons being included in the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and promising to construct a multimillion-dollar stadium for the country in time for the Pacific Games in 2019. It has also seen direct investments take off.

“Chinese businesses dominate nearly every sector of Solomon Islands economy, from natural resource extraction to retail businesses and increasing assistance to the Solomon Islands government, although Australia is by far the largest donor,” says Kabutaulaka. “In order to understand China’s growing influence, one must understand the flows of Chinese capital.”

Solomons’ response to China was mixed. In November 2018, protestors demanded that Sogavare resign in order to make 2019 the end of ties between Taipei and China. Violence erupted, and several Chinese-owned businesses were destroyed.

However, the prime minister will not change his mind. Speaking on Wednesday, Sogavare said the agreement was necessary to cover “critical security gaps” and improve the ability of the authorities to deal with future instability. He added that the Solomon Islands entered the deal with “eyes wide open.”

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The rapprochement of Honiara and Beijing is largely influenced by development. Tess Newton Cain, the Pacific Hub project leader at research center the Griffith Asia Institute, says that Sogavare believes Chinese infrastructure and investment are essential to the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He’s very much made it clear that that’s what he sees as the economic path, or a significant part of the economic path, and there’s no question that China is very much the principal player in economic development of Solomon Islands,” she says.

Meg Keen is a professor at Australian National University. She says the Pacific islands see security issues and their development problems as intertwined. “They want to see strong commitment from their development partners on the full range of security issues,” she tells TIME, “which include climate change, human security, resource security, as well as traditional security.”

What will the consequences of the agreement be?

While the pact undoubtedly gives Beijing greater presence in the Pacific, Keen points out “the signed agreement remains secret so the full implications are hard to judge.”

Newton Cain thinks there may be a backlash domestically. “The issue of lack of transparency is a concern in Solomon Islands as has been the case in relation to other decisions by the Sogavare government, including the ‘switch’ in 2019,” she tells TIME. Already, a senior opposition figure in the islands, legislator Peter Kenilorea Jr., is warning that the pact will “further inflame emotions and tensions.”

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At the same time, the fact that the U.S.delegation to the Solomons is going ahead, Newton Cain says, is “a positive sign that Sogavare is maintaining communication and is available to hear from partners as to what their concerns are.”

Kabutaulaka says that the pact will spur greater Western engagement with Pacific Islands countries, already being seen in such initiatives as Washington’s Pacific Pledge, Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, New Zealand’s Pacific Reset, and the U.K.’s Pacific Uplift. Reopening the U.S. Embassy in Honiara is part the same effort to combat Chinese influence.

“It is however unclear whether that will diminish China’s growing influence in the region,” says Kabutaulaka. “So far, it hasn’t.”

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