Solomon Islanders paddle on rising seas. Image: Twitter

SEOUL – It is “game on” in the battle for influence in the South Pacific as Japan dispatched Vice-Foreign Minister Kentaro Uesugi on a three-day trip to the Solomon Islands on Monday, according to reports from Tokyo.

The move follows the surprise signing of a China-Solomon Islands security deal last week, a pact that grants China replenishment and deployment rights in the Pacific island nation, and potentially parks Chinese forces near the shores of Australia.

The deal looks provisionally like a big win for Beijing, given the ongoing expansion of the reach and role of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN.

Offensively, the PLAN is extending its global reach with the upgrade of blue-water assets that can venture far from China’s shores. Defensively, its submarine-mounted nuclear deterrent gives it a second-strike capability.

Both those issues would be significantly buttressed with replenishment facilities in the Solomons.

The deal also pushes back against the China-facing AUKUS nuclear submarine deal under which Washington and London will supply Canberra with nuclear-powered subs.

One analyst wonders whether the Solomons deal could benchmark the Chinese military base in Djibouti, which has granted it a power-projection platform in the horn of Africa.

News of the deal with China generated alarm among the US and its allies with interests in the region. A heavyweight US delegation recently dispatched to the Solomons warned the islanders of “significant concerns,” and, potentially, an unspecified response.

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called any Chinese base in the Solomons a “red line.”

Tokyo is following this script, albeit with more circumspect language.

“We believe the deal could affect the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region and we are watching the development with concern,” Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said, according to reports.

Last week Japanese media said Tokyo’s delegation would meet Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele in the capital Honiara. A meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was also being set up.

It is not clear what leverage Tokyo has, but experts think the Japanese could try to woo Honaria with top-quality aid and assistance packages as it backs Quad allies Australia and the US.

If so, it needs to move quickly. Last week, China’s ambassador to the Solomons handed over Chinese-built athletic facilities for use in the 2023 Pacific Games to the country’s prime minister.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing in 2019. Photo: AFP via Getty Images / Wang Zhao

According to a reported segment of the then-draft pact leaked last month, Chinese warships could dock in the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment, and China could dispatch police “to assist in maintaining social order.”

The deal, signed last week, has put the Solomons, hardly a focal point for senior geopoliticians in recent years, squarely on the New Cold War’s map.

Morrison, in comments carried in the Australian media on Monday, said: “Working together with our partners in New Zealand and of course the United States, I share the same red line that the United States has when it comes to these issues.

“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” he added, without elaborating on what action would be taken if China started to build a base.

The American delegation, which arrived on April 22 and met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, was packed with heavy hitters.

According to the White House, they included National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, Deputy Commander Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka and USAID Acting Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Craig Hart.

Multiple promises were made, the White House readout stated. These included reopening the US embassy which was closed in 1993, sending a hospital ship to assist with public health, discussing a Peace Corps contingent and Covid-19 vaccine deliveries.

The Americans also banged tables.

“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent [Chinese] military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly,” the White House statement read.

Beijing shot back on Sunday. According to the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times, the Chinese embassy in Honiara said: “The so-called establishment of Chinese military bases is fake news made up by someone with ulterior motives as the security cooperation fits within international laws and practices.”

The islands, with a Melanesian population of 658,000, lie northeast of Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. Colonized by both Germany and the UK, they were the scene of fierce fighting in World War II between predominantly US and Japanese forces, notably during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Gradual decolonization began post-war, with independence reached in 1978. But intra-island and ethnic tensions broke out in the 1990s, leading to lawlessness, chaos and the rise of violent militias.

About 200 people were killed amid rioting and violence, with Chinese businesses being especially targeted. Some order was restored after an Australian-led stabilization force intervened in 2003.

The recent Chinese initiative appears to have caught the US and its allies on the back foot. Derek Grossman, who analyzes the Indo-Pacific at the Rand Corporation think tank, told US state media VOA: “I think the US and Australia were very late to the game here, and China scored its first security foothold in Oceania.”

Flames rise from buildings in Honiara’s Chinatown on November 26, 2021, as days of rioting saw thousands ignore a government lockdown order. Photo: AFP via Getty Images / Charley Piringi

China’s Solomons surprise is a special poke in the eye of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

“Talking to Indo-Pacific Command people over the years, they view Oceania and the South Pacific as a key area for pushback against China,” Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst, told Asia Times. “Now, in the case of the Solomons, China has done its own pushback.”

Politically, the small nations of the South Pacific have long been targets in the global tug-of-war between Beijing and Taipei over diplomatic recognition. The Solomons switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.

Strategically, the islands sit on Australia’s northeast doorstep.

Beijing and Canberra have been at daggers drawn since the start of the Covid pandemic when Australia demanded an investigation into the virus’ origins in China. This annoyed Beijing, leading to a trade war between the nations.

Then, last year, Australia joined the AUKUS pact, which is widely seen as being aimed at China. China has since returned symbolic fire.

Australia protested in February after one of its reconnaissance aircraft, shadowing a Chinese surface action group, or SAG, built around an amphibious landing ship, was illuminated by a Chinese laser.

The SAG was passing through the Arafura Sea and subsequently transited the Torres Strait. The Arafura Sea separates Australia from Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait is its narrowest passage.

Basing arrangements in the Solomons would offer Chinese ships refueling and replenishment deep in the Pacific. They could also offer Beijing a counterweight to the US air and naval base in Guam to the north.

“If the Chinese want to mount blue-water patrols, they have to get through the island chains and the Solomons is one area where they can do this,” Neill, an expert on the PLA, said.

And there could be a working PLA benchmark for a Solomons base. While the world has focused heavily on Beijing’s ongoing consolidation and weaponization of reefs and islets in the South China Sea, there is another Chinese platform in the Horn of Africa.

“If you think of the case of Djibouti, China talked about it being a ‘replenishment base,’ but has become a state-of-the-art fortress at the mouth of the Red Sea, which is important to protect BRI initiatives,” Neill said, referring to the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s fortified base, which it prefers to call a “support facility,” in Djibouti offers Beijing a force balcony onto the Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. The US, France and Japan also maintain bases in the north African nation. The US has accused Chinese forces of using lasers against its pilots there, an allegation denied by Beijing.

Given this model, “there is a definite possibility that they could build a sophisticated military base” in the Solomons, Neill suggested.

Such a base could be far more than a naval platform, undertaking regional reconnaissance and intelligence gathering if supplied with radars, sensors and electronic listening devices.

Royal Australian Navy ship the Anzac-class frigate HMAS Parramatta, front, and a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force surface contact ship sail in formation during Annual Exercise 19. Photo: US Navy / Chief Operations Specialist Michael Ojeda

As China’s power expands, a nervous Japan has been aligning ever more closely with both the US and fellow Quad member Australia.

The two signed a long-in-gestation bilateral defense deal in January this year. Though it is not a mutual defense pact, the Reciprocal Access Agreement permits the basing of each other’s troops in each other’s countries, a significant step for a constitutionally restricted Japan, as well as the staging of joint exercises.

“The long-anticipated deal has been worked on since 2014 and amounted to the most significant security pact that Japan has inked with another country since the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the United States,” noted Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.  

Neill suggests that Tokyo’s game plan may be to lure Honiara on-side using checkbook diplomacy.

“The Japanese aid agency could come in pretty strong, offering development and infrastructure packages,” he said. “They are keen on good stewardship, they always talk about the quality they can offer. It is about high-quality development financing as an alternative to the BRI.”