To say China ‘bought’ a military base in the Solomons is simplistic and shows how little Australia understands about power in the Pacific
The China-Solomon Islands draft security agreement circulating on social media raises significant questions about how the Australian government and the national security community understand power dynamics in the Pacific Islands.
In Australian debates, the term “influence” is often used to characterize the supposed consequences of China’s increasingly visible presence in the Pacific.
There is a hypothesis that China generates influence primarily from its economic governance. This includes its concessional loans, aid and investments from state-owned enterprises (manifested in part by Beijing’s involvement of the Pacific Islands in its Belt and Road Initiative).
On the face of it, the leaked project apparently proves that Chinese spending has “bought” enough influence to cause the Solomon Islands government to consider the deal. But such an interpretation misses two essential questions.
The role of domestic politics
First, the draft agreement is primarily about Solomon Islands domestic politics, not just geopolitics.
As Dr. Tarcisius Kabutulaka explained after the November 2021 riots in Honiara, geopolitical considerations intersect and can be used to advance long-standing national issues.
These include uneven and uneven development, frustrated decentralization and unresolved grievances stemming from past conflicts.
Power in the Pacific is complex. It is not just national government politicians who matter in shaping domestic and foreign policy.
Take, for example, the activism of Malaita Provincial Governor Derek Suidani, who continued relations with Taiwan after the Solomon Islands transferred diplomatic recognition to China in 2019. This highlights the important role that sub-national actors can play in both domestic and foreign policy domains.
Neither Solomon Islanders (nor other Pacific peoples) are “passive dupes” of Chinese influence or unaware of the geopolitical challenges – and opportunities. Some, however, face resource and constitutional constraints when resisting attempts at influence.
Australia’s current policy settings are not working
The second key problem is that Australia’s current policy frameworks are not working – if their success is measured by advancing Australia’s strategic interests.
Australia is by far the largest aid donor to the Pacific and has been spending consistently through its ‘Pacific Step-up’ initiative.
Australia has spent billions running the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), as well as major bilateral programs in the country. Still, Australia couldn’t walk away from Honiara given the security deal with China.
Read more: As Australia deploys troops and police, what now for the Solomon Islands?
Canberra may not have sought to influence Solomon Islands on this issue. But given Australia’s longstanding concerns about potentially hostile powers establishing a presence in the region, that is unlikely.
Home Secretary Karen Andrews has previously commented in response to the leaked draft that:
It is our neighborhood and we are very concerned about any activity that takes place in the Pacific Islands.
Rumors (later denied) that China was in talks to establish a military base in Vanuatu and China’s attempt to lease Tulagi Island in the Solomon Islands had already heightened Australia’s concerns. These concerns partly motivated the government’s investment in the Pacific Step-up.
Focus on the draft security agreement
the project terms security agreement should worry Australia. This goes far beyond the bilateral security treaty between the Solomon Islands and Australia.
Article 1 provides that the Solomon Islands can request China “to send police, police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to the Solomon Islands” in circumstances ranging from maintaining social order to “other unspecified tasks agreed upon by the Parties”.
Even more worrying for the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands, Article 1 also provides that
competent Chinese forces can be used to protect the security of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.
It remains unclear what authority the Solomon Islands government would retain once it consents to Beijing’s deployment of “relevant forces” to protect Chinese nationals.
Article 4 is equally vague. It sets out specific details regarding Chinese missions, including “jurisdiction, privilege and immunity […] will be negotiated separately.
The agreement also raises questions about the transparency of the agreements reached by Beijing and their consequences for democracy in its partner states.
In accordance with article 5,
without the written consent of the other party, neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to any third party.
This implies that the Solomon Islands government is legally bound not to inform its own people and democratically elected representatives of activities under the agreement without Chinese approval.
The version circulating on social networks could turn out to be a first draft. His leak is likely a negotiating tactic to pursue multiple agendas with multiple players, including Australia.
Australian High Commissioner Lachlan Strahan met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare yesterday and announced that Australia would extend its assistance force until December 2023. It will build a nationwide radio network, build a second outpost patrol and will provide SI$130 million (A$21.5 million). ) in the context of budget support.
While the timing is likely coincidental, it highlights an emerging dynamic in Australian Pacific policy: playing the mole by seeking to directly counter Chinese moves through economic policy. Consider Telstra’s recent purchase of PNG-headquartered Digicel Pacific – a move seen by some analysts as a genuine attempt to exclude China from the Pacific.
China’s success in persuading the Solomon Islands to consider an intrusive security deal raises questions about our understanding of how power and influence are wielded in the Pacific.
Read more: China’s push into PNG has been surprisingly slow and inefficient. Why did Beijing find things so difficult?
If influence is seen as leading to concrete behavioral changes (such as entering into a bilateral security agreement) and whether Australia is going to “compete” with China on spending, you will need to ask yourself, for example: how much “influence” does an infrastructure project buy?
This understanding of power, however, is insufficient. Instead, a more nuanced approach is needed.
Influence is wielded not only by national governments, but also by a variety of non-state actors, including subnational and community groups.
And the targets of those seeking influence can exercise their power of action. See, for example, how various Solomon Islands players are taking advantage of Australia, China and Taiwan’s overtures in the country.
We also need to examine how power affects the political norms and values that guide governing elites and non-state actors, potentially reshaping their identities and interests.
The draft security agreement may come to nothing, but it should alert Australia and its partners.
Old assumptions about how power and influence are wielded in the Pacific need to be urgently reexamined, as does our assumption that explicit “competition” with China advances our or the Pacific’s interests.