On 25 March 2022 Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) warned of rising Chinese interest in the Pacific. This included plans to expand Chinese military bases throughout the Pacific to slow the encroachment of the US into the seas around China.
For Jennings, China’s latest move is reminiscent of Japanese wartime strategies that saw Japanese forces operating in the Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific during World War II.
The implications of a Chinese presence in the region are significant for Australia’s future security. The ability of the Chinese to build bases, covert weaponry, signals intelligence operations, and to have boots on the ground could pose a threat to Australia’s national security, as well as threaten shipping channels vital to Australia’s interests.
Whilst Jennings was hopeful that the Chinese-Solomon pact would fall through, fast forward to around 18 April 2022 and the deal is done. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has condemned the agreement saying, “Australia is deeply disappointed by the signing of the security cooperation agreement between the Solomon Islands and China”.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the purpose of the agreement is fourfold, stating the China-Solomon Islands security cooperation:
- is in nature the normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries and an important part of China-Solomon Islands comprehensive cooperation
- follows the principle of equality and mutual benefit, and is based on respecting the will and actual needs of the Solomon Islands
- aims at promoting social stability and long-term tranquility in the Solomon Islands
- is open, transparent, and inclusive, and does not target any third party.
Although Australia has a long-standing relationship with the Solomon Islands, Australia clearly benefits the most. According to the ASPI Australia has roughly $70 million invested in the island nation, compared to a $244 million Solomon Islands investment in Australia. In comparison, China is the top export destination with 66.8 percent of Honiara’s exports going to China.
Marise Payne has reportedly maintained that “Australia can fill the security needs [of Solomon Islands], and the region. Working together, we can make sure that all of the security needs of the Solomon Islands are taken care of”.
But with the agreement now signed, sealed, and delivered, the onus is now on the Australian Government to work with its Solomon Islands and Chinese counterparts to ensure that security in the Pacific continues.
The White House has responded to the signed deal by threatening retaliation should China set up military bases in the Solomon Islands, warning such a move would create “significant concerns”. According to a statement released by the White House, a high-level U.S. delegation visited the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on 22 April 2022. The delegation, led by the National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, along with two dozen cabinet members and staff as part of the delegation’s trip across the Pacific.
The United States reiterated its hopes to further deepen ties with Pacific Island nations and “take tangible steps to advance a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific. Speaking in the Solomon Islands, the delegation was said to have reiterated specific steps that the United States would take to advance the welfare of the people of Solomon Islands, including expediting the opening of a U.S. embassy, launch a maritime domain awareness program, advance cooperation on unexploded ordnance, and support health and climate change.
According to the White House statement, the delegation also spoke of the security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China and of the potential security implications for regional security. In response to these concerns, Prime Minister Sogavare gave his assurances that no Chinese military base or long-term presence would be established.
The United States and Solomon Islands agreed to launching “high-level strategic dialogue to enhance communication, address mutual concerns, and drive practical progress” including security issues, economic and social development, public health, finance, and debt.