Solomon Islands deal ramps up tensions in the Pacific

7 April 2022
Vinil Kumar

The announcement of a new security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China has set off alarm bells in Australia’s ruling circles. The deal would reduce the Solomon Islands government’s reliance on Australia for domestic security and strengthen its relationship with China—a clear challenge to Australian and US dominance in the Pacific.

The agreement empowers the Solomon Islands to request China’s assistance in maintaining “social order” through the deployment of law enforcement and military personnel. In return, it permits China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insists the deal is not a rejection of his government’s existing security partnership with Australia, but defended the “need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners”.

As China has grown into an economic and military rival to the US, it has attempted to expand its reach by establishing diplomatic and economic links with Pacific nations. According to the Lowy Institute, China committed US$2.44 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific in 2019, the same year Sogavare’s government ended its diplomatic links with Taiwan in order to accept US$500 million in aid from Beijing.

Australia is no stranger to using foreign aid in the region to advance its own interests and has been alarmed at the prospect of a rival power doing the same. While China has previously established security partnerships with governments in Africa, this agreement is the first such deal between China and a Pacific government.

The Sogavare government sees many potential benefits of a closer relationship with the rising superpower. As China has stepped up its foreign aid spending in the region, Pacific islands governments have seen an opportunity to get a better deal out of the imperialist powers eager to expand their influence. Many have welcomed another pool of aid funding made available by China, which often comes with less onerous terms. But Sogavare’s 2019 shift away from Taiwan towards China led to and deepened domestic political disputes, resulting in protests and riots in Honiara in November 2021. The unrest forced Sogavare to invoke the Solomons’ security agreement with Australia, resulting in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s deployment of Australian federal police and defence force personnel to “restore order”. This gave Canberra an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of Solomon Islands’ security agreement with Australia. But for Sogavare’s government, it showed that its reliance on Australia to maintain domestic stability constrained its ability to engage freely and benefit from economic links with other powers. Now, the government in Honiara is in a position to choose between Chinese and Australian flavours of authoritarian state repression to put down domestic dissent and safeguard the interests of its rich and powerful.

It is an open question how this will play out domestically. There is precedent for the government’s growing ties with China to become a line of attack for Sogavare’s West-aligned opponents trying to mobilise social discontent and destabilise his government.

In Australia, there is concern about the encroachment of the US’s—and by association Australia’s—key imperialist rival into its existing sphere of influence. The Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, are of particular strategic importance for Australian capitalism. Both countries are situated along Australia’s northern approach, and the Solomon Islands are positioned along critical shipping routes between Asia and Australia’s east coast. And the agreement sets a precedent for further and more far-reaching such deals between China and a broader range of Pacific islands governments. This would be a serious blow to Australia’s monopoly on domestic security in Pacific island countries and to its dominance in the region. Hence the bipartisan disapproval, condemnation and Morrison’s signature brand of patronising “Pacific family” rhetoric in response to the deal—a response that has been described by Sogavare as “insulting” and undermining of the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.

Government and media commentary within Australia, as well as on the part of Solomon Islands opposition leader Mathew Wale, has warned of China establishing a naval base in the island nation. Formally, the agreement does not allow China to do this, only to resupply its ships. But that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. Short of permanent bases, the agreement will be important in helping to protect existing Chinese investments in the country, as last year’s unrest ransacked and burnt Chinese-owned businesses along with others.

As it stands, Australia is the single largest aid donor to the Solomon Islands, having committed more than US$1.7 billion since 2009 according to the Lowy Institute. The day before the new security agreement leaked, High Commissioner Lachlan Stratan was in Honiara announcing a further $22 million aid package, which would include funding for communications, health and border security outposts. Canberra’s “Pacific Step Up” has attempted to strengthen its diplomatic and economic links with Pacific islands nations to preserve its sphere of influence, but it is being increasingly outpaced by China.

The rulers of the Solomon Islands have decided that their interests are best served by undermining the political restraints placed upon them by Australian imperialism. For them, rejecting China’s overtures would mean putting up with Canberra’s scraps and all the political meddling that goes with them. Having two major regional imperialist powers competing for favours is a much more lucrative position to be in.

The agreement has and will be used as an argument for further bolstering Australian militarism and reinforcing its dominance in the region. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which in the early 2000s advocated a ten-year military occupation of the Solomon Islands, has argued that Australia needs to increase its military spending and consider establishing a permanent naval base in the Solomons to combat the growing threat of China.

The upshot of all this is a heightening of imperialist tensions in the region, and the inevitable ramping up of militarism on all sides that goes with it. It makes the prospect of military confrontation in the Pacific more likely, and with it, the prospect of destruction and misery for working-class people across the Pacific, in China and in Australia.

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