Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has been winning the hearts and minds of many developing nations, including in the South Pacific. Photo: China Daily

US President Joe Biden’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, Kurt Campbell, and assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, headed this week to Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, to register concerns over this island nation having signed a security agreement with Beijing. 

Their delegation includes officials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Defense. It had its first meeting on Monday in Honolulu with the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John C Aquilino, and senior military officials of Australia, Japan and New Zealand, who together expressed concerns on the China-Solomon Islands security accord posing “serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Their next stop on Wednesday was Suva for deliberations with Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on regional security challenges for the South Pacific, and they were then to travel to Papua New Guinea before arriving at their final destination in Honiara to complete their tour of the South Pacific.

So, what does this China-Solomon Islands security accord contains that has triggered such hyperactive footwork by the US and witnessed political and media commentaries in New Zealand and Australia?

Chinese whispers

To begin with, the China-Solomon Islands framework agreement for security cooperation, signed on Tuesday, has ignited a whole range of analysis and interpretations. Among other things, it is being read against the backdrop of China’s naval facility in Djibouti that was inaugurated in August 2017.

China negotiated that agreement during 2015-2016 but it took nearly two years to announce it formally as its naval facility to provide logistic support for its anti-piracy, humanitarian-assistance and peacekeeping operations. China meanwhile continues to denounce military alliances nad naval bases as remnants of the Cold War years’ myopic thinking.

These Chinese whispers are not restricted to the Chinese literati. For the US and its close regional allies Australia and New Zealand as well, this is not the first time that they have raised such hue and cry about China’s expanding outreach.

In 2018, Australian media raised a storm about Vanuatu making available a naval facility for China, and last year again reports of a Chinese naval base in Kiribati ignited worrying media projections for this faraway cluster of island countries. Last November, President Xi Jinping, using the term “Indo-Pacific” in his address to the 30th anniversary of the China-ASEAN Dialogue, was seen marking China’s formal entry into Indo-Pacific narratives.

At the operational level as well, China has been active in engaging these Pacific Islands countries. There were reports in 2019 of Xu Changyu, vice-president of China Sam Enterprises, negotiating a 75-year lease of Tulagi Island with a natural deepwater harbor in Solomon Islands. The deal was blocked by Solomon Islands’ attorney general and triggered alarm bells in Britain, Japan and the United States, whose navies this island state had once hosted. 

The matter did not end there. In October 2019 when Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visited China, Xu Changyu reportedly accompanied him throughout his visit and in April 2020 managed to register his company as an investor firm in Solomon Islands, removing its earlier legal limitations.

Recently his company submitted another proposal to Solomon Islands authorities for exploring “opportunities to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’s Liberation Army Navy … with exclusive rights for 75 years.” The current China-Solomon Islands security accord is bound to be read in the the light of such stories.

China-Solomon Islands accord

This China-Solomon Islands framework agreement ostensibly aims to enhance “social stability and long-term tranquility in the Solomon Islands.” Sogavare has explained this in view of domestic disturbances and that Solomon Islands had earlier signed a similar agreement with Australia in 2017.

According to a leaked draft copy of the accord, however, it stipulates that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands.” This, says US State Department spokesman Ned Price, “leaves the door open for the deployment of Chinese forces on the Solomon Islands.”

In the midst of an Australian federal election campaign, this security accord has triggered a ferocious attack from the opposition against the ruling coalition and warnings of Chinese ships arriving in their country’s periphery in four weeks’ time.

This has even created disjunction within the ruling coalition. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to reassure the public that his government has been in know of the situation, his Defense Minister Peter Dutton was quoted saying, “When they say this is not about a military port, we know that they’ve been trying to get into Papua New Guinea and elsewhere to build ports.… We’ve got military bases starting to pop up close to Australia and close ot our neighbors and partners in the Pacific.”

Well-known commentator and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has called it “the worst Australian security-policy failure in the South Pacific since World II, almost certainly making Chinese warships a more permanent feature in the Coral Sea,” which, he says, observers have been warning of at least since 2009.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce goes a step further to rekindle the specter of the worst period of the Cold War years as he talks of of this security accord, implying Beijing establishing its military presence 2,000 kilometers off the coast of Australia and saying “we don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast” that will be closer to Australia than Perth is to Canberra.

Starting last August there were reports of Solomon Islands creating this new partnership with Beijing. Recent weeks saw reports of a draft security accord igniting serious concerns among various Western countries.

Australia and New Zealand, which see the South Pacific as their back yard, have been anxious especially as experts begin to talk of Chinese naval ships arriving in less than four weeks’ time. The Morrison government last week sent its Pacific minister, Zed Seselja, to Honiara as its last-ditch effort to stop this security accord, but to no avail.

Indeed, this has boomeranged in even stronger criticism by opposition leaders who have accused Morrison of not appreciating the gravity of the crisis and not dispatching his foreign minister in time. 

Reality versus rhetoric

Prima facie, the South Pacific region consists of 14 serene and idyllic sovereign nations and seven territories and covers more than 15% of the Earth’s surface. But in spite of their pristine beaches and cultural diversity – located strategically 2,000km from Australia and 3,000km from Hawaii – they have had their share of authoritarian regimes and internal disturbances.

Over the years they have drifted away from their formal Western allies and have come to be increasingly engaged by the expanding outreach of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, increasing global connectivity has also brought them to the center stage with more nations exploring possible partnerships.

The story of their connections with China goes back to President Xi Jinping attending the 2018 APEC Summit in Port Moresby, where he first met leaders of eight of the Pacific Island countries. China’s trade, aid and tourism have since expanded, thereby raising anxieties in the Pacific Islands’ traditional allies like Australia, New Zealand and the United States that see China as a “target” and not as a “partner” in their Indo-Pacific narratives.

Their concerns were further reinforced when in September 2019, Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. China’s juggernaut has since continued to expand its footprint in the South Pacific. 

No doubt, the China-Solomon Islands security accord may one day pave the way for the PLA Navy deploying ships across the South Pacific and reinforce China’s entry into the Indo-Pacific narratives. Only this Thursday, a whole paragraph of President Xi’s inaugural address to the Boao Forum for Asia was devoted to China’s “Global Security Initiative” that proposed to make Asia “an anchor for world peace.”

There could be a grain of truth that the continuing Ukraine crisis has deflected global focus away from Beijing having freer hand and keeping its initiatives below the threshold of global scrutiny. Yet it is also true that in the face of an inevitable and overarching China challenge, each of Beijing’s initiatives becomes a trigger for Western powers’ doomsday prophecies.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.