China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement Alarms the South Pacific

A security alliance between China and the Solomon Islands has sent shockwaves throughout the South Pacific, with many worried it could set off a large-scale military buildup or that Western animosity to the deal could benefit China.

The extent of China’s ambitions on the islands remains unclear.

A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would not only put the country’s forces in close proximity to Australia and New Zealand but also to Guam and its massive U.S. military bases.

China has only one overseas military base in the strategically important Horn of Africa country Djibouti. Although China does not use the term military base, many believe that the Chinese military is working towards establishing a network of overseas military bases.

The government of the Solomon Islands said last week a draft of the agreement is ready and will be signed soon.

The draft says Chinese warships could stop at the islands for logistical replenishment and that China could send security forces, including police and military personnel to the islands to help maintain social order. The draft agreement also specifies China must approve what information is disclosed about joint security arrangements, including at media briefings.

The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, a move rejected by the islands’ most populous province and was a contributing factor in last November’s riots.

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken said in February that the U.S. would reopen its embassy in the nation’s capital Honiara, which has been closed since 1993, to increase its influence in the Solomons.

China and the Solomon Islands both denied the agreement will lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base. The government of the Solomons said the agreement is necessary because the country has limited ability to deal with violent uprisings like the one in November.

However, Australia, New Zealand and the United States all expressed concern over the deal. Ardern described the agreement as “gravely concerning”.

China on the other hand said it aims to maintain the safety of people’s lives and property and the agreement does not have military overtones. The foreign ministry added that the speculation on the development of a military base was groundless.

China has been pursuing a foothold in the region for some years to expand its naval presence and as part of Beijing’s long term effort to become the dominant power in the region.

Unlike the base built in Djibouti, where China has commercial interests in the region to protect, any operation in the Solomon Islands would likely be less substantial. China has been successful so far in outflanking the U.S. and Australia not in a military competition but in an influence one.

China’s base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. China calls the port a support facility for its naval operations to fend off piracy in the Gulf of Aden and for its African peacekeeping operations. The facility has a pier big enough to dock either of China’s two operational aircraft carriers.

China also has other potential base candidates in Southeast Asia. One such candidate is Cambodia, whose leader Hun Sen has long been a trusted Chinese ally. The two have reportedly signed a secret agreement in 2019, allowing the establishment of a Chinese military base.

China is dredging the harbor at Ream Naval Base to allow ships larger than any Cambodia possesses to dock, and is building new infrastructure to replace a U.S.-built naval tactical headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia would establish a chokepoint in the Gulf of Thailand close to the crucial Malacca Strait.

China has also been funding projects in Pakistan, another close ally, and in Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure lending has forced the government to hand over control of the southern port of Hambantota.

One intriguing prospect is a base in Equatorial Guinea, a West African country on the continent’s Atlantic coast. A base there would give China a presence in the Atlantic just opposite of the United States.

A base in the Solomon Islands would give China the ability to interfere with U.S. naval operations in the region that could be crucial in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or in the South and East China seas. A Chinese capability to operate from the Solomon Islands would change the equation in the region.

The islands are at close proximity to Australia, and a Chinese base would force it to change its day to day operations particularly in the air and at sea.

Some argue that leaders could be overreacting to the agreement, especially Australia, which will go to elections in May. The West’s alarmism could strengthen China’s hand by pushing the Solomons into a corner.

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