Australian Anxiety over the Solomon Islands’ Security Deal with China
Commentaries

Australian Anxiety over the Solomon Islands’ Security Deal with China

Australian reaction to the Solomon Islands’ planned security deal with China leaked to the public in late March ranges from alarm, worry, concern, to warning of not overacting.

According to a copy of the deal circulated on social media,  the security plan sets out a broad framework allowing Chinese “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” deployments to Solomon Islands to maintain “social order”. The draft document also proposes that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.

Australia’s reaction – raise the alarm

The immediate reaction from Australian political leaders was of alarm. Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, warned that this “security deal with China could disrupt peace in the Indo-Pacific”, as it would create “the potential for China to build a naval base in the South Pacific, allowing its navy to project power far beyond its borders.” Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, captured Australia’s attitude towards the South Pacific stating that “the Australian government would view any expansion of Chinese military activity in the Pacific as concerning … That is our back yard [emphasis is added by the author], that is our neighbourhood, and we are very concerned about any activity that is taking place in the Pacific islands.”

The security arrangement not only concerns the governing Coalition, but also the Opposition Labor Party, which agrees on the importance of the South Pacific to Australia’s national interest but blames current government’s approach to the region for creating the conditions for the deal. Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles commented that “Australia was the natural partner of choice in the Pacific Islands” but criticised the government’s delay in sending personnel to the Solomon Islands, and argued that  the recent developments were a “failure of Australian foreign policy”. Former Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remarked that the proposed pact was “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades and it’s one that is adverse to Australia’s national security interests.” Rudd accused Coalition government of neglecting the Pacific so that Pacific nations were “turning to China” in part because Australia had “dropped the ball” on both international aid and climate change action in the past decade.

Concern over the planned security arrangement resulted in Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific travelling to the Solomon Islands on April 13 in the middle of the federal election campaign. Zed Seselja arrived in Honiara to ask the country’s prime minister not to sign the agreement. This request has apparently been rejected by the Solomon Island government. On April 19, according to Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, the agreement has been signed between Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry Wang Yi and Solomon Islands Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremiah Manele, with whom the signing has been confirmed.

However, some analysts argue that Canberra should not overreact to the perceived increase in China’s influence in the region but consider “the primacy of domestic Solomon Islands politics” as well as the complexity of “power dynamics in the Pacific Islands”. Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in international security at Massey University in New Zealand, and Joanne Wallis, a professor of international security at the University of Adelaide, interpret the agreement as being primarily about Solomon Islands domestic politics, especially after the November 2021 riots in Honiara. The unrest has contributed to Solomon Islands political leaders applying geopolitical considerations in advancing longstanding domestic issues, including uneven development and power decentralization, as reflected by the country’s switch diplomatic relationship from Taiwan to China in 2019. Australian Pacific experts also highlight the agency of Pacific Island Countries (PICs): PICs are well aware of strategic risks and are not passive to China’s influence; the leak of the draft could be “a bargaining tactic aimed at pursuing multiple agendas with multiple actors – including Australia.

How can we understand Australia’s alarmist reaction?

First, Australia’s reaction to the Solomon Island matter cannot be understood without considering Australia’s role and sense of identity in the South Pacific. While Australia is often regarded as a middle power in international politics, it perceives itself as a major power projecting a leadership role in the South Pacific, which can be easily inferred from Australia’s “Pacific Step-up” foreign policy and the references to the South Pacific as Australia’s “back yard”. Given this, Canberra cannot accept an “unfriendly” external power challenging its “natural” sphere of influence .

Second, the situation should be understood through a geopolitical lens. Despite the Solomon Islands lying about 2,000 kilometers north-east of Australia, China’s military presence in the South Pacific causes Western powers particularly Australia and  the US to fear that the deal would require them to change their military posture in the region. This worry has been intensified in the context of the strategic competition between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific, as well as the worsening relationship between China and Australia particularly since 2020 when Australia requested an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19, which antagonized Beijing.

Third, at the global level, there are concerns that China under Xi Jinping aims to rewrite the post-WWII international order. Canberra’s longstanding worry is that China’s growing power projection would threaten this existing order underwritten by the US primacy, for which Canberra has provided a leading supportive role in the Asia Pacific. This worry has been growing since China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was expanded to the South Pacific, especially in 2018 when six Pacific governments signed up to the BRI and are now indebted to Beijing. Moreover, in 2019, the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties from Taipei – a US democratic and security partner – to Beijing. China is therefore perceived to be expanding its economic and diplomatic might in the region. Western allies believe that China’s security deal with the Solomon Islands will continue this trend and further upset the regional order.

Steps for the Australian government ahead

Looking ahead, with respect to its relationship with China, the Solomon Islands, and the South Pacific more generally, Australia should take the following steps.

In general, Australia needs to show humility in its outreach to the PICs and drop its political narrative that the South Pacific is Australia’s “back yard”. This contradicts the “Pacific family” narrative. It needs to be open to and develop its deep understanding of issues concerning PICs. For example, if Australia wants to be consulted and informed of Pacific Islands government’s decisions on security and defence matters in advance, Australia should understand that PICs have similar expectations and Canberra should do the same, for example, on the matter of the AUKUS.

Australia should develop diplomatic mechanisms to allow it to regularly discuss issues concerning regional security and stability with PICs. In cases where China is involved, a ‘trilateral’ (or ‘multilateral’) foreign policy approach with Canberra, Beijing, and PICs would be desirable. This approach would not only be beneficial to PICs but would help Canberra and Beijing develop a more constructive relationship, and move away from a “zero-sum” mentality with respect to their roles in the region.

 

About the Author

Dr Jade Guan is a Lecturer in Strategic Studies of Deakin University, a Module Convener for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC), and an Academic Adviser for the postgraduate program of the DSSC at the Australian War College.
Jade has a decade of experience in higher education teaching and learning in the discipline of International Relations. She has held roles as a Course Convener, Lecturer, and Tutor in International Security and International Relations at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Jade is a China scholar and has developed her expertise in security and foreign policy issues in the Indo Pacific region. She is the author of publications on soft power, and China’s security, economic, and foreign policies. Jade received her PhD on International Relations from the ANU. She is on the Editorial Board of the Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies. Jade was a visiting fellow of many Chinese academic institutes over the past decade, including Beijing University, Renmin University, and Nanjing University, and has extensive fieldwork and archival research experience in China.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Small flags of Solomon Islands by butenkow