Hong Kong , April 6 (ANI): Solomon Islands is forging ahead, despite opposition at home and among neighbors, with a security cooperation agreement with China promising far greater cooperation, and potentially paving the way for China to deploy military assets in the Pacific nation.
This could potentially amount to an open door for the Chinese military to operate from Solomon Islands in the future. On March 30, Chinese Ambassador Li Ming and Solomon Islands' Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade signed a framework agreement. The earlier leak of a draft garnered swift condemnation amongst countries like Australia and New Zealand.
Nonetheless, a Chinese Embassy press release stated, "As two sovereign and independent countries, China and Solomon Islands are committed to normal law enforcement and security cooperation on the basis of equality, respect and mutual benefit, which conforms to international laws and customary practices."
The embassy said the agreement would strengthen bilateral cooperation "in areas such as disaster response, humanitarian aid, development assistance and maintaining social order, to jointly address traditional and non-traditional security challenges".
Ironically, many regional countries describe China as the single greatest security threat. To such, Beijing warned that they should respect Chinese and Solomon Islands sovereignty, and "stop irresponsible smears and spreading misinformation".
However, the claim that this agreement "will inject important positive energy and certainties into the security environment of Solomon Islands and the region as a whole" is far-fetched.
Indeed, New Zealand's 2021 Defence Assessment listed the following as among the most threatening potential developments. "The establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand's values and security interests: Such a development would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region.
In addition to crowding out access to limited Pacific infrastructure, such a military facility would enable a greater quantity, quality and diversity of military capabilities to operate in and through the region, as well as potentially supporting gray zone and other activities counter to New Zealand's interests."
Such a facility could well become a reality with the signing of this framework agreement.
What exactly did the document say?
According to the leaked draft, "Solomon Islands may, according to its needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people's lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties."
It continued, "China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to carry out logistical replenishment in and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands."
Any Solomon Islands request for security assistance will include a brief introduction of the internal security situation, the number of police/military personnel requested, their main duties and the duration of the mission.
"If China agrees to perform the relevant mission, Solomon Islands shall provide all necessary facilities and assistance, including but not limited to the border entry of personnel and weaponry, intelligence and information support, logistical support, and legal status and judicial immunity of the relevant personnel. The relevant expenses shall be settled through friendly consultation by the parties."
The agreement will have an initial duration of five years, and will be automatically extended for five-year periods unless specifically terminated by either party.
The rather vaguely worded agreement gives China a major Pacific foothold. For example, if social unrest similar to the November 2021 riots occurs again, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare could ask for Chinese assistance in the form of Chinese police, the People's Armed Police, the Public Security Bureau or the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Potentially, Chinese troops could be used to put down any civilian protests, to potentially deter Australia or another nation from intervening, and conduct widespread and invasive surveillance of the population.
There is no specific mention of a military base, but it seems logical given that the document discusses logistical support. This could be similar to China's installation in Djibouti, where PLA land forces are stationed and where Chinese warships and aircraft routinely visit.
Dr. Anna Powles, senior lecturer at Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security in New Zealand, told Radio New Zealand: "Now that raises a lot of questions obviously; what is the distinction between police and armed police, and who are the other law enforcement and armed forces that are referred to in the agreement?"
Powles continued, "It also talks about what kind of tasks that a Chinese contingent would be involved in, such as maintaining social order. It's not clear what that means. It also talks about providing assistance on other tasks, and it's also unclear what those other tasks would be."
The provision allowing China to send ships "according to its needs" for replenishment, stopovers and "transition" is vague, and needs to be clarified. Nor does it specify what kind of ships China can send. If China does establish a logistics support base, the PLA Navy will have far greater freedom of movement around the Pacific.
Chinese warships are no stranger to the Pacific, and there are long-standing public concerns about the potential for increased Chinese warship visits let alone for a permanent PLA base. Such an installation would give the PLA a considerable boost in its quest to break out of the so-called First and Second Island Chains.
What happens if China's needs cross paths with Honiara's or key partners like Australia and New Zealand? Do China's "needs" refer to Beijing's strategic aims, where it wishes to isolate Australasia or to teach regional powers a lesson? Beijing will not be leery of putting intense pressure on Honiara to compel it to agree with any Chinese requests.
Another provision promises tight controls on public information. "Without the written consent of the other party, neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party." Knowing how secretive and paranoid China is, this essentially seals the release of any information and ensures extremely limited access for media. Such provisions must set alarm bells ringing.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist in Chinese politics at Canterbury University in New Zealand, noted, "The agreement has been widely leaked, indicating not everyone in the Solomon Islands is in support of the Sogavare government turning the Solomons into a puppet state of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP]."
With an essentially permanent Chinese security presence in this Pacific nation, there will be innumerable threats to political freedoms and human rights. Brady warned, "Sogavare wants to create a false flag or domestic security situation so that he can use the Public Security Bureau to go in and arrest his political opponents in opposition and in the provinces."
She concluded, "The CCP profited from a conflict provoked by their own political interference in Solomon Island politics to insert a military presence to prop up the corrupt and incompetent Sogavare government and install a PLA military base."
Indeed, the security agreement has implications for the security of all Pacific islands, and a Chinese military presence there would pose new headaches for Australia and others. A hostile power there can begin to block shipping traffic from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean, into the Coral Sea and beyond. The Solomons is strategically positioned, which explains why both Japan and the Allies prioritized capturing it in World War II.
Daniel Suidani, Premier of Malaita, a region hostile to Sogavare in Honiara, has forged solid ties with Taiwan, and has garnered greater public support for his anti-China stance. When the USA provided USD25 million in development assistance to Malaitan provincial authorities in 2020, Sogavare accused "foreign powers" of meddling in internal affairs.
To sugarcoat security cooperation with China, Sogavare is emphasizing the economic benefits to the populace. In a press release, the government claimed that broader partnerships are "needed to improve the quality of lives of our people, and address soft and hard security threats facing the country". It reasserted the mantra that its security arrangements have a "development dimension".
The Solomon Islands signed its first ever security agreement with Australia in 2017. Under that Solomon Islands - Australia Treaty, the four countries of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent personnel after last year's Honiara riots. A bilateral agreement with PNG is also currently being finalized. Despite the new protocol with China, it promised to "preserve" the Australian treaty.
On 29 March, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced continuation of New Zealand military and police deployments to help maintain peace and stability. This involves five military personnel of the Solomon Islands International Assistance Force (SIAF) serving through till 31 May, as well as four police officers.
The SIAF will remain until the end of 2023. Just recently, Australia promised to donate approximately USD16.2 million, build a radio network and construct a second patrol boat outpost on the eastern border.
Meanwhile, Mahuta added: "Solomon Islands' proposed agreement with China, while within Solomon Islands' sovereign rights, risks destabilizing the current institutions and arrangements that have long ensured the Pacific region's security. Given this would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbors, we will continue to raise our strong condemnation of such agreement directly with the countries involved."
As well as security, Honiara is working on items such as a civil aviation services agreement with China, expanding non-reciprocal trading, and sending more students to China for tertiary education.
This security cooperation agreement has probably been in the works since Honiara shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019.
Interestingly, the Solomon Island 2021 budget included AUD90 million from the Chinese government for "constituency development funds". From last year's budget, Sogavare authorized that monies from an escrow account jointly managed by China and the Solomon government be paid out to 39 of the country's 50 members of parliament. These were members supportive of the prime minister, with the money essentially being a legal slush fund.
In February, a team of Chinese policemen began operating in the Solomon Islands, a follow-on from China's offer to restore law and order following anti-government protests last November. The training includes riot control and even firearms training. In fact, Chinese police were training their Solomon counterparts on plastic replica Type 95 assault rifles.
Alarmingly, these were delivered to Solomon Islands via a Chinese logging ship rather than through any open avenue. Then, a memorandum of understanding on police cooperation was signed by Chinese Public Security Vice minister Wang Xiaohoong and Solomon Minister of Police, National Security and Correctional Services Anthony Veke, on March 18.
From 2006-20, China provided aid of around USD3 billion to Pacific countries, of which more than half was loans rather than grants. China has already displaced Australia as the largest export market for the Pacific. The International Monetary Fund estimates that public debt as a proportion of GDP in the Pacific rose from 33% to 39% from 2019 to 2021, due at least in part to Chinese investment.
The 14 nations and seven territories of the Pacific span more than 15% of the world's surface but have a cumulative population of less than 13 million people. As Solomon Islands show, the regional order is changing rapidly, and Beijing is making inroads not only in terms of security, but also threats to sovereignty and human rights.