China’s security pact with Solomon Islands
Context: A chain of tiny islands located in the South Pacific is at the centre of a major diplomatic tussle between China and the West.
- China and the Solomon Islands finalised a controversial security agreement, an early draft of which was leaked online in March.
- The agreement is likely to have far-reaching consequences for much of the world, particularly since several shipping lanes connecting the US and its allies run through the region.
How has the political situation in Solomon islands evolved and why it matter?
- With a population of less than seven lakh, the chain of hundreds of islands is located near Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean.
- It was here, in the capital city of Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, that some of the fiercest battles of World War II were fought between the US and Japanese troops.
- Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country was rife with ethnic unrest and military conflict between several armed groups, ultimately resulting in a coup that brought present Prime Minister Sogavare to power for the first time.
- With its economy in a state of near-collapse and ethnic clashes still rampant, the Pacific Nation was forced to call in reinforcements to stabilise state affairs.
- In 2003, a multinational Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), led by Australia, was established. As part of the mission, troops were deployed from Australia and New Zealand and a state of stability was eventually restored.
- But political instability continues to persist, making it difficult for new governments to stick around.
- Despite attempts by Sogavare to expel the RAMSI mission, RAMSI managed to remain in the country for well over a decade.
- Just last year, Australia came to the rescue once again when the nation was rocked by a wave of anti-government protests. The country sent peacekeeping forces to quell riots in Honiara, where protestors stormed parliament in a bid to topple PM Sogavare.
- Solomon islands and Australia normalised a bilateral security treaty in 2017, which allows Australian troops to be deployed in the island nation in the event of an emergency.
What has been the change in Solomon islands’ foreign policy stance in recent years?
- There have been growing concerns about PM Sogavare’s closeness with China in recent years
- Soon after he was elected prime minister once again in 2019, he cut the country’s long-standing diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of China.
- The decision, widely known as ‘The Switch’, is said to have been one of the first major indications of China’s expanding influence in the region, which was traditionally an ally of the US and Australia.
- Sogavare’s decision was not popular — several province leaders rejected the switch, and it was also one factor contributing to the riots late last year.
What is in the Solomon Islands-China pact?
- The leaked document explicitly enables China to send its “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to the islands
- on the Solomon island government’s request, or
- if China sees that the safety of its projects and personnel in the islands are at risk.
- It also provides for China’s naval vessels to utilise the islands for logistics support.
- There have been speculations that China might be building its next overseas naval base in Solomon Islands after Djibouti, which was also incidentally referred to as a logistics support base.
- PM Sogavare explained in Parliament that the deal was guided by national interests and denied allegations that China plans to set up a military base in the country in the long term.
What’s in it for China?
- The fierce competition between the West and China has only escalated in the region in recent years, prompting the Western alliance to form a military pact called AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) to counter Beijing in the Pacific.
- With the new security agreement, China and its army have a foothold in the island nation, which could be significant for blocking vital shipping lanes.
- The agreement could also potentially help China intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora face threats in the region.
- Over the years, China has entered security and economic pacts with several countries, including Djibouti, Pakistan and Cambodia. China pumps in funds for infrastructural development, while also gaining access to several vital ports.
- Also, getting allegiance of such island states act as potential vote banks for mobilising support in international fora.
- Moreover, these states have disproportionately large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones and have significant reserves of timber and mineral resources, along with fisheries.
What is in it for Solomon Islands?
- Some experts have said that the prime minister timed the signing of the security pact in such a way that he will now have China to lean on if protests break out ahead of the upcoming elections, which he has been trying to delay by rewriting the constitution
- Solomon Island government has stated the diversification of its security partnerships (reducing security dependence on Australia) as one of the reasons for signing this deal.
So why is the West unhappy?
- The agreement has renewed fear among Pacific countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US.
- Australia in particular has been very critical of the new security pact. Australian PM claimed that the pact pointed towards “intense pressure” from China in the Pacific island nation.
- Australia is concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region
- Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan said they “shared concerns about the security framework and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Connecting the dots: