As many observers of the US and Chinese utilization of soft and hard power around the globe are wondering how the relations between the two largest economies in the world will play out in the coming years, the developing situation in the South Pacific provides a good glimpse of the intensifying competition between the two.
Solomon Islands inhabitants seem to have found themselves again caught between a rock and a hard place for the first time since World War II – when the US clashed with Japan – and their land serves as the arena for a rivalry between two great powers thanks to their government’s recent decision to diversify its arrangements with Australia and New Zealand and strengthen ties with China to “improve the quality of lives” of its citizens “and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.”
The draft document that was leaked on March 24 by an aide to the premier of Malaita province, Daniel Suidani – an opponent of the current prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare – caused fear and speculation in Wellington and Canberra concerning the possibility of China building a naval base in the South Pacific.
However, it is worth noting that a broader security agreement covering the military has to be considered by the island nation’s cabinet in the first place and, if approved, would mirror the similar arrangement with Australia that was signed in 2017, as Karen Galokale, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services in the Solomon Islands, told Reuters.
Notably, the same can be said about a memorandum of understanding covering police cooperation that was signed on March 18 between Anthony Veke, minister for police in the Solomon Islands, and Wang Xiaohong, executive vice-minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security, during a virtual meeting.
The question is: Why this resentment from the US allies in the region?
The Solomons and the Taiwan factor
The country has managed to establish a dominant economic position through participating in retail, agriculture and resources sector business activities in an environment where 12.7% of the population lives below the basic-needs poverty line.
This fact serves as a useful tool for “demagogues” like Suidani, as Terence Wood, a research fellow at the Development Policy Institute of Australian National University, called Malaita’s charismatic leader, willing to stoke the unrest for political gains by skillfully exploiting anti-Chinese prejudice and sentiment in a country where the peace is fragile.
During last year’s riots, this was the case when shops owned by ethnic Chinese were looted.
Dozens of buildings were torched in the Chinatown district of Honiara after the premier of the Solomons’ most populous island, Daniel Suidani, decided to blame the Asian minority for the corruption and economic inequality and start a protest against Sogavare in order to express his dissatisfaction with the national government’s decision to mend diplomatic ties with Beijing in 2019 at the expense of its relations with Taipei.
“I feel sorry for my people in Malaita because they are fed with false and deliberate lies about the switch,” Sogavare told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
He added that Malaita was under the strong influence of “the countries that don’t want ties with the People’s Republic of China, and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution.”
But what does that exactly mean? What countries could Sogavare have in mind?
It is no secret that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $25 million to the rebel province in 2020 without initial approval by the Solomons’ national government, which urged Malaita province to “respect proper government processes and mechanisms in dealing with aid assistance” and encouraged it to refrain from “politicizing foreign aid.”
The aid was given in exchange for banning Chinese companies from doing business in Malaita and the decision by Suidani to go for medical treatment in May 2021 to Taiwan, despite opposition from the national government and the Chinese Embassy in Honiara.
And if that was not enough, the US ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, Erin McKee, decided to attack Sogavare in her first comments after the riots by accusing him, without any evidence, of corruption.
“Do you want aid that benefits one person, one party, and one bank account? Or do you want assistance that empowers entire families, strengthens entire communities, and enriches entire nations?” said McKee. “As democratic and independent states, you have a choice of who to partner with. And I believe that the choice is obvious.”
I am not entirely convinced this is the right way for a diplomat to behave. I am also not sure if a black person who “entered public service as a toilet cleaner and tea boy” at the Ministry of Finance and Treasury’s tax department during colonial times and achieved everything that he has “through hard work” should be smeared in such an inflammatory manner by a white person whose country was built on the backs of African slaves.
Going beyond the geopolitics
At a time when China is expanding its footprint around the globe, the US and its allies including Australia and New Zealand are visibly anxious when the South Pacific nations are increasingly expressing courage to make strategic choices that are first and foremost in line with their own national interest.
This fear, in a predominant way, might be the result of the escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing that tempts us to perceive the ongoing developments in the zero-sum-game framework.
This would explain the Anglosphere’s previous concern over the Solomons switching recognition from Taiwan to China, as it could “stimulate others” to abandon Taipei – bearing in mind that now only 14 countries maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
In military terms, as was expressed by US Defense Department in its annual report published last November, there is a growing fear on the US side that China may try either to create a “string of pearls” of bases to project power beyond its coasts or to utilize its commercial maritime connections to put in place more efficient logistics for its world’s largest navy.
This unsettling feeling is also aggravated by fear that the PLA Navy could gain access to deepwater ports or other infrastructure in the Pacific of potential military use in order to prevent the US Navy from gaining peaceful access from the west coast of the Solomons to the east coast of Australia, with a visible buildup of the so called anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities that may aim at keeping the US out of waters that China considers to be of its “core interest” – that is, the South China Sea.
While this kind of fatalist thinking might indeed have merit in the case of a potential military clash between the world’s two superpowers, we have to bear in mind that the world cannot become hostage to the declining power’s anxieties.
After all, no nation should be pressured to dismiss opportunities to diversify its security and development while remaining at the mercy of the country that has significant problems with improving its own people’s lives, to begin with, out of fear of not insulting its hegemonic ego.
In fact, the second-biggest economy in the world has a lot to offer to the Pacific economically, which has translated in the past decade to at least US$1.7 billion in aid and loans that have been spent on much-needed transport and infrastructure, as Lowy Institute estimates suggest.
Hence it is very unwise and detrimental to the US raison d’être to scaremonger people about the alleged “debt-trap” diplomacy on the side of China, as that is a myth that was effectively debunked not only by Professor Deborah Brautigam, an academic at Johns Hopkins University, but also mainstream media like Bloomberg.
In light of these facts, one can but agree with Sogavare’s comments over the backlash to his sovereign decision that he finds “very insulting” if we trust that every nation has an equal right to decide on its own future in a rapidly changing world, where small countries populated by descendants of Africans have bigger aspirations than simply being reduced to the role of “the back yard of big Western powers.”
If we ought to believe, as Sogavare claims, that the pursuit of “liberal hegemony” had failed since, as Stephen Walt of Harvard University argues, “There’s No Such Thing as Good Liberal Hegemony,” we should finally come to terms with the fact that most people do not want to “pick sides” and desire to have good relations both with China and the US.
Knowing that race and racism are the basis of the modern US-led world order, as Amitav Acharya, an academic at American University, writes in a recent article for International Affairs, it would be tragic if the US tried to influence the Solomons’ relations with Beijing by indirectly interfering in its internal affairs, or, God forbid, “invade” the country and “topple its government,” as was suggested by David Llewellyn-Smith, the founding publisher of MacroBusiness and former owner of leading Asia-Pacific foreign-affairs journal The Diplomat.
Multipolarity is a new reality, and denying this fact will only cause more problems in an already divided world.