Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has been defending his government’s security pact. signed with China on Tuesday.
Sogavare told parliament that the agreement with Beijing was necessary to deal with the “internal security situation” in the Solomon Islands.
The Pacific island nation has long struggled with political instability, most recently in November 2021 when protesters attacked Honiara’s Chinatown and attempted to storm Sogavare’s residence.
An Australian police contingent helped restore stability following a government request. Australia had also led a multilateral mission in 2003 following violence and a coup in the late 1990s.
Canberra sounded the alarm about the China pact when the draft leaked online in March and was trying to cheer Sogavare to rethink the plan. The United States and New Zealand have also raised concerns about the possibility of China establishing a military outpost in the Pacific.
What is the security situation in the Solomon Islands?
The Solomon Islands, with a population of less than 700,000, is a chain of hundreds of islands that lie east of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean.
The capital, Honiara, is located on the island of Guadalcanal, the site of a fierce and hugely significant battle between American and Japanese troops in World War II.
The former British colony has battled unrest since the late 1990s, when ethnic tension erupted into violence and a coup brought Sogavare to power for the first time in 2000.
With the country in a state of near political and economic collapse, Australia and New Zealand deployed troops, stability was restored, and a peace agreement was signed.
The calm did not last.
In 2003, after the government requested assistance from the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s main diplomatic grouping, a multinational Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was established with Australia leading the deployment.
RAMSI remained in the country for almost 14 years, despite Sogavare’s attempts to expel the mission each time he was in power.
Sogavare was elected prime minister again in 2019 and months later moved to sever the Solomon Islands’ longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.
The move was not popular with everyone in the Solomon Islands and Daniel Suidani, the chief minister of Malaita province, rejected the change, saying it would boost independence for Malaita, the country’s largest province.
The November riots also reflected the continuing fallout from the decision to change diplomatic relations.
Sogavare was not going to give in. It is invested in China and China invested in it. Does this put the citizens of Sols under the yoke of the Popular Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party? While the sovereignty of the suns is respected, this has regional implications. What’s next in China’s sights? https://t.co/fuVNNejRT9
— Dr. Shailendra B Singh (@ShailendraBSing) April 20, 2022
What’s in the pact?
A text of the pact has not been published.
The leaked draft suggested it would allow Chinese warships to stop in the Solomon Islands and Chinese police to be deployed at the request of the archipelago to maintain “social order”. Neither party would be permitted to release the missions publicly without the written consent of the other.
“We intend to bolster and strengthen our police capacity to deal with any future instability by properly equipping the police to take full responsibility for the country’s security responsibilities, in the hope that we will never be required to invoke any of our bilateral security agreements. Sogavare explained to parliament on Wednesday, saying the pact complied with international and national law.
Sogavare has previously said the Solomon Islands “has no intention … of asking China to build a military base” and on Wednesday stressed that the deal was “guided by our national interests.”
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale was skeptical.
“All drivers of instability, insecurity and even threats to national unity in the Solomon Islands are completely internal,” Wale was quoted as saying by the Solomon Star newspaper on Wednesday. “This means that the agreement, by giving opportunity to China’s military posture, has nothing to do with the national security of the Solomon Islands. I doubt that the provision for this in the agreement is inadvertent, rather it is calculated for geopolitical effect. On PM Sogavare’s part this is mercenary, on China’s part this is an opportunity too good to miss.”
Asked by Wale if he would publish the text of the agreement, Sogavare said he would talk to China.
What are the concerns of other countries?
Australia, which has had a security agreement with Honiara since 2017, has been the biggest critic of the deal, but other Pacific countries, including the US and New Zealand, have also raised concerns.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is in the midst of a general election campaign, said on Wednesday that the signing of the pact indicated “intense pressure” from China felt by Pacific island nations.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in a joint statement with Zed Seselja, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said that while Australia respected Honiara’s “sovereign decision-making right”, it was “deeply disappointed” with the pact with China.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this deal has been developed, pointing to its potential to undermine stability in our region,” the statement said, saying Canberra was seeking “further clarity” on the terms of the deal and its consequences. for the region
The opposition Labor Party, which hopes to unseat Morrison’s coalition, described it as “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of the Second World War”. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong noted that Australia had ignored Wale’s warnings already in August of last year about the possible security pact.
In a statement on Wednesday, officials from Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan expressed “shared concerns about the security framework and its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
For the record, I am concerned about China’s increasingly visible presence in the Pacific. But Australia needs to fundamentally reimagine how we understand and engage with Pacific states and peoples to address it: https://t.co/nNKO3lnM2b
— Joanne Wallis (@JoanneEWallis) April 20, 2022
The official announcement of the pact comes as Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, its Under Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, embark on a visit official to the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The United States has already announced that it plans to reopen its embassy in Honiara, which has been closed since 1993.
What about China?
China is already Solomon Islands’ top export destination, having bought around 65 per cent of Honiara’s exports in 2019, followed by Italy with 9 per cent. Australia is the destination for less than 1 per cent of Solomon Islands exports.
China is also the source of just under a quarter of the country’s imports, followed by Australia with 13 percent.
In announcing the security deal, Beijing framed it as “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Western powers were “deliberately exaggerating tensions” about the pact.
China’s state media has portrayed Beijing as a benign power in the Pacific, suggesting that it is the United States that wants to develop its military might in the region.
“The Solomon Islands should realize that they are under special attention from Washington because the United States wants to use them as a pawn to contain China,” the Global Times tabloid wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday.