China has recently signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a tiny Pacific state close to Australia, angering the Western alliance.
China has long sought to wield greater influence in the resource-rich Pacific and with its recent security deal with the Solomon Islands, its policy in the region is now giving the desired results.
A former colony of the UK which still recognises Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch, the Solomon Islands created quite a stir across the Western alliance after announcing the pact with Beijing earlier this month.
Washington was quick to warn Beijing of the consequences, saying if it established a “military presence” in the Solomon Islands following the security pact, the US would “respond accordingly,” according to a White House statement.
But why is China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands a big deal in the region?
Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on China and a senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank, believes it’s a big deal because it shows China’s success in securing its influence over the region, which has long been more friendly towards the Western alliance.
“It’s unclear exactly what the impact of the pact will be. But it’s really more about the fact that in these Pacific islands, the Chinese have now got such a great deal of influence that it seems local authorities are going to turn against their traditional allies of the US and Australia,” Pantucci tells TRT World.
Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s pro-China stances show how large Beijing’s growing influence over the tiny Pacific state has become. Prior to the China-Solomon Islands security pact, which allows Beijing to deploy its troops to protect the nation's “social order,” Sogavare also changed the state’s Taiwan policy in 2019.
Sogavare, who has served as the prime minister several times since the 2000s, switched sides, ending the Solomon Islands' recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty over mainland China, and acknowledging Beijing's. With China considering Taiwan a part of its sovereignty, the Solomon Islands' move revealed the depth of China's influence in this small island state, according to Pantucci.
The Western alliance is closely watching China’s gains in the Solomon Islands, which gained its independence in 1978 from the UK, angering the Western coalition and escalating tensions in the region. Last year, the fierce competition between China and the Western alliance across the Pacific led the US, Australia and the UK to form AUKUS, a military pact against Beijing.
“The China-Solomons agreement is very troubling for the stability and security of the Southwest Pacific region,” says Edward Erickson, a former US army officer and a retired professor of military history at the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
“The reason for this is that the sea lines of communications from the United States to Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia can be cut or interdicted by Chinese military forces based in the Solomons,” Erickson tells TRT World.
What the security deal says
While the security deal’s details have not been disclosed, the agreement, for which China has pushed so hard for some time, would allow Beijing “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.”
It would also let China “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands.”
The Chinese business elite has long been in the Solomon Islands, investing in the country’s different sectors, but some violent acts against them in the past put their lives in danger. In 2006, after Snyder Rini, a long-serving deputy and a former minister, became the country’s prime minister, he faced allegations that he took bribes from Chinese businessmen to form his government, leading to anti-Chinese riots across the capital.
As a result, the security deal aims to protect both Chinese lives and interests.
Despite fierce criticism from the US and Australia, which is the biggest aid donor to the Solomon Islands, Sogavare refused to backtrack from the security deal, saying that it was a sovereign decision.
But other regional powers think differently. "China's incredibly aggressive — the acts of foreign interference, the preparedness to pay bribes to get outcomes, and to beat other countries to deals — that's the reality of the modern China," said Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton on April 24.
Sogavare also denied Western allegations that China will establish a military base in the country in the long term. Australia, which is located close to the Solomon Islands, sees the formation of a Chinese military base in the tiny pacific country as a “red line.”
In the past, Australia led a regional force called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to end ethnic clashes and stabilise the country’s politics.
While the Solomon Islands is one of the smallest states in the world, being populated by just less than 700,000 people, the state suffered from ethnic strife and the military conflict between different armed groups representing various tribes and ethnic groups from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
Due to the deadly clashes between different armed groups, which sometimes controlled the country’s capital Honiara, the Solomon Islands requested outside help to stabilise its state affairs. In 2003, the RAMSI, comprising Australian and Pacific Islands troops, arrived in the Solomon Islands.
After RAMSİ’s intervention, the state was able to control much of the country, but political instability has continued making many governments collapse in the short term. As a result, politicians like Sogavare wanted Australian-led RAMSI forces to leave the Solomon Islands.
Under Sogavare in 2017, the regional force left the Pacific nation. While he lost power later in 2017, he came back to power in 2019 after winning the election, and since then, he has been in power.
Chinese ‘penetration’ strategy
China has been increasing its presence in the Pacific for some time. Still, according to Pantucci, this is part of a bigger strategy where China is trying to engage with many small countries around the world that do not traditionally gain a lot of attention from major powers.
The Chinese recognise the fact that these many small countries vote in the UN General Assembly and other institutions in the UN, “those kinds of bodies, which govern our planet,” Pantucci says. “Through influencing these sorts of countries, China is able to make pretty easy gains,” he says.
Having allied with friendly countries like the Solomon Islands, China can also gain the ability to contest the US supremacy in the Pacific. While China works so hard to gain the friendship of the Solomon Islands, the US has kept its embassy in the capital Honiara closed since 1993, showing its disinterest in the tiny state.
“China recognises the usefulness of collecting allies in countries that frankly don’t usually get attention from major powers like the US and the EU,” says Pantucci. After the announcement of the China deal, Washington dispatched its envoys to the Pacific state, announcing that it would reopen its embassy.
Using its enormous economic wealth, China can extend its political influence across different continents, choosing small but strategic states such as Equatorial Guinea, an African state located on the eastern coast of the Atlantic, where Beijing has sought to form its permanent military base, according to US intelligence reports.
China’s first overseas military base was in Djibouti, a tiny country with a small population in the eastern part of Africa, straddling the Indian Ocean and the strategic Suez Channel.
After establishing a military presence in both the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, with its recent Solomon Islands move, Beijing shows that it also wants to have a military presence in the Pacific region, close to US allies.
While the US and its allies criticise China’s overseas military bases, Washington has an unprecedented army presence across all seven continents, maintaining close to “800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad.”
Some political groups in those hosting countries, such as Iraq, think that US troops threaten their national security in various ways.