How does the security treaty between China and Solomon Islands affect the Pacific region?
The draft of a security alliance between Solomon Islands and China has once again raised concerns about the expansion of China’s influence in the Pacific region. Some experts think the deal could potentially affect the strategic environment in the region, but it will also push regional powers to reassess how they handle relationships with pacific islands.
Concerns about China’s attempt to expand its influence in the Pacific have risen in recent days after Solomon Islands confirmed that they are on the verge of signing a new security agreement with China.
In a speech to the country’s parliament on Tuesday, Solomon Island’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said warnings against his country’s security negotiation with China were “very insulting” as he denied being pressured by Beijing to sign the deal with China.
“We are not pressured in any way by our new friends and there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands,” Sogavare said.
However, some experts think the content of the draft has “over-accommodated” the security needs that Sogavare has talked about. Mihai Sora, project director of the Australia-PNG Network at Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat at Solomon Islands, said concerns about the security agreement are about how broad, ambiguous and non-transparent that activity can be.
“It allows tremendous scope for various kinds of armed personnel to be present in Solomon Islands without a clear distinction of what their activities would be and their authorities and immunity and the purpose,” he told DW.
Sora said the potential security treaty reveals China’s security intent in the Pacific and it offers tremendous scope to transit or base military and naval assets. “Even a rotating presence would have an immediate effect on the strategic environment in the Pacific,” he added.
New Zealand and Australia expressed concern over the agreement
The content of the draft, which has been circulating on social media since last week, said the security treaty would cover China’s armed police and the military protecting Chinese projects. Sora said Australia, New Zealand, and other countries in the Pacific are worried that the security treaty could endanger the benign and transparent cooperation in the region.
Leaders in Australia and New Zealand have both expressed their concerns about the security treaty. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as a “potential militarization of the region.”
Tess Newton Cain, project lead of the Pacific Hub at Griffith University, said the content of the security treaty is a departure in terms of how other countries in the Pacific have engaged with China around security. “There are security arrangements in relation to Fiji and Papua New Guinea, but they don’t take the form of an agreement or a treaty that we have seen in development here,” she told DW.
Sora from Lowy Institute emphasized that the security treaty could affect every country in the region, which is why they have been calling for more consultation, more transparency and to have a dialogue about how this affects the region and the level of comfort in the region to this agreement.
“It’s a sovereign matter but it’s a decision that affects the whole region,” he told DW. “Typically, when issues that affect the whole region are being decided on, there is consultation and dialogue.”
Opposition leader criticized the treaty as “damaging the Pacific”
In addition to the concerns expressed by leaders from regional countries, opposition leaders in Solomon Island have also expressed opposition to the treaty. Matthrew Wale, the leader of Solomon Island’s opposition, said that even though the deal may appear to be about security, it is in fact “counterproductive” to the security interests of Solomon Islands and the Pacific region.
“Prime minister Manasseh Sogavare seems to be oblivious to the issues surrounding the draft deal and may see it as a move that would cement his grip on political power,” he wrote.
“The Solomons has never been threatened by external forces, nor does it expect any such threats in the foreseeable future. Its security interests are predominantly domestic. And in that respect, there is already an agreement with China on policing support. This new deal, therefore, has to be seen in light of China’s reach into this part of the Pacific,” he added.
Sora said most experts in the region are worried that even if China’s military presence in Solomon Islands is small and temporary, it will still have immediate strategic dividends.
“The question isn’t so much what would a Chinese military base in the Solomons be able to do in the time of conflict and the long-term strategic goal,” he said. “It’s really what will it be able to deliver and what strategic dividend it can deliver in the immediate term and in the time of peace.”
According to him, having military assets in Solomon Islands changes the strategic environment and limits access to other countries like Australia and New Zealand that may wish to pass through those areas without the consent of the Chinese military presence locally. “It has the potential to occupy the strategic bandwidth of countries like Australia,” he told DW.
The Pacific as a “geostrategic chessboard” for the West?
Over the last few years, countries like Australia and New Zealand have all launched projects to deepen their relationship with the Pacific islands, as they try to contain China’s expansion in the region. This includes “Pacific Step-Up” launched by Australia and “the Pacific Reset” initiated by New Zealand.
However, Dr. Tess Newton Cain said in recent years, Pacific islands have generally viewed the increased focus on the Pacific by Australia, New Zealand, and the United States with a degree of skepticism. According to her, the Pacific islands think these moves are a result of trying to counter China or contain China.
“For pacific islands, that’s not how they want to see these relationships go,” she said. “They don’t see their region as being a geostrategic chessboard. They are looking to have meaningful, respectful and cooperative relationships with partners who can help them meet the development and security needs of their population.”
On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said relevant parties should view the security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands objectively and stop making irresponsible remarks. “Attempts to provoke, obstruct and undermine China’s friendly relations with the island countries is not popular and will not succeed,” he said during the daily press briefing.
On Friday, the Solomon Islands reiterated in a statement that the security treaty didn’t invite China to establish a military base. “Government is conscious of the security ramification of hosting a military base, and it will not be careless to allow such initiative to take place under its watch,” the statement said.
Sora said delivering development assistance or having development cooperation doesn’t amount to exclusivity in security cooperation between your recipient country and another party.
“What I would recommend for Australian policymakers and other countries wishing to contribute in a constructive way to the region is to enhance their cooperation in other spaces not already covered by the step up, such as economic cooperation,” he told DW.
This piece first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.