China and the World

Naval gazing

Beijing’s Solomon Islands deal irks Canberra


Agreed pact: Manasseh Sogavare

In 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Allied forces launched a major attack against a Japanese base on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.  

Located some 2,000 kilometres off the northeast coast of Queensland, the Solomon Islands form part of a natural barrier around Australia. And, as one of the only pieces of terra firm between Australia the US, they offered the perfect staging post for the Japanese military to isolate America’s antipodean ally.

Fast forward to today and Washington and Canberra are once again worried about a rising Asian power gaining a strategic foothold on the islands – only this time the power in question is China.

The method for gaining that access is a controversial security pact which allows Beijing to send ships and military personnel to the Melanesian archipelago.

News of the pact first leaked in late March taking Canberra, Wellington and Washington by surprise. On Wednesday this week the Solomon Islands Prime minster Manasseh Sogavare confirmed that agreement had been signed despite official requests from Australia to reject the deal. 

The inking of the pact is the culmination of years of wooing by Beijing.  In 2019 Sogavare severed 36 years of diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established relations with Beijing instead. China has been ramping up business and investment activity in the island chain ever since. Taiwan countered that huge bribes had been paid to lawmakers to swing the vote.  

The archipelago is rich in gold, timber, nickel, lead and phosphate, as well as fish and other marine resources. But its key significance is its location in the Southwest Pacific – an area traditionally dominated by Australia.

“The Solomon Islands has taken a sovereign decision to broaden its security cooperation with more countries… the decision will not impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region,” Sogavare said in a statement on Wednesday.

Sogavare is a divisive character and the 2019 decision to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing was so controversial that the Solomons’ most populous province Melaita said it would rather seek independence from the Solomons in order to pursue independent ties with Taiwan.

Attempts to secede erupted into violence in 2021 with rioters targeting the Chinatown in the Solomon capital of Honiara. Peace was restored with the help of Australian-led Commonwealth forces but Melaita still shuns Beijing and enjoys warm ties with Taipei. 

The new security pact allows the government of the Solomon Islands to call on China for police and military help – a feature the opposition fear will be abused to allow China’s supporters in Honiara to stay in power.

The agreement also allows China to “make ship visits” to the Solomons. A leaked copy of a draft of the pact states that Beijing can also request the deployment of “relevant forces” to “protect Chinese personnel and major projects”.

Beijing denied that the agreement was linked to its current rock-bottom relations with the government in Australia saying the move did not “target any third party”.

Sogavare also rebuffed allegations that the pact paves the way for China to establish a military base, saying the government was “conscious of the security ramifications” of such a move.

In 2019 the Solomon parliament vetoed a move by a Chinese company to rent the island of Tulagi for 75 years over wider concerns that Beijing was trying to establish a military base around the natural deep-water port there.

The Solomon Islands have no standing army – which is why Honiara has had to call on Australia to help quell civil unrest twice in the last two decades.

Yet Sogavare – who has served as prime minster four times since 2000 – has not always enjoyed good relations with Canberra. In 2006 he expelled Australia’s High Commissioner saying he had interfered in national affairs when the Australian-led peacekeeping force (in place from 2003 to 2017) raided Sogavare’s offices after the attorney-general was accused of child abuse.

The appeal of the pact with China will be decreased dependency on Australia, analysts said.

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