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China, Solomon Islands sign landmark security agreement

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    25th Apr, 2022

Context

China and the Solomon Islands have signed a framework agreement on security cooperation.

Background

What are the salient features of the agreement?

  • The Inter-Governmental Framework Agreement Security Cooperation between the two countries seeks to enhance “social stability and long-term tranquility in the Solomon Islands,”.
  • According to the provisions on this agreement the two countries will conduct cooperation in such areas as:
  • Maintenance of social order
  • Protection of the safety of people’s lives and property,
  • Humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response
  • The above will be done in an effort to help the Solomon Islands strengthen capacity building in safeguarding its own security.

Why is the US concerned?

  • Broad nature of agreement: Unites States raised concerns on “the broad nature of the security agreement,” which may enable China to deploy its military forces in the country.
    • This deal has vaguely defined terms which may empower the former to use interpretation beneficial to itself.
    • The agreement permits Beijing with enormous inroads into Solomon Islands.
    • It would allow intelligence agencies of China to operate in Solomon Islands.
    • It also allows China to deploy its armed forces in the island country for the purpose of maintaining peace and order in the latter.
    • Chinese forces in the above scenario will be protected from prosecution by ‘legal and judicial’ immunity provided by this agreement.
  • Instability: The agreement could stir up instability in the Solomon Islands and “set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region.

New Zealand: The Prime Minister of New Zealand has termed this move as a step taken towards militarisation of the region.

Australia: On similar lines the Australian Prime Minister has also criticised the move.

China’s claim

As per China, the China-Solomon Islands security cooperation is not targeted at any third country, serving the common interests of the South Pacific region.

What Solomon Island’s own citizens (Opposition) are not convinced?

  • The opposition parties in Solomon Islands considering this agreement to be surrender of country’s sovereignty to China.
  • Parties in opposition in the Island country feel that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare will use the political turmoil to call in Chinese military troops, with an excuse to bring peace and stability, and allow Solomon Islands to be a military base of China.

Turmoil in Solomon Islands: The unrest followed protests by residents of Malaita, the South Pacific island nation's most populous province, which opposed a decision by Prime Minister Sogavare's government in 2019 to formally recognise China instead of Taiwan.

  • They also fear that the immunity granted to Chinese personnel in Solomon Islands will make the country subservient to China.
  • Efforts of China to first firmly establish itself in waters of Pacific and now on the Islands has started giving cold feet to AUKUS nations.

AUKUS

  • AUKUSis a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, announced on 15 September 2021 for the Indo-Pacific
  • Under the pact, the US and the UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

The rationale for the Solomon Islands’ increasing proximity to China:

  • The Solomon Islands is part of the ethnically Melanesian group of islands in the Pacific and lies between Papua New Guinea and
  • The islands, which were initially controlled by the British Empire during the colonial era, went through the hands of Germany and Japan and then back to the U.K., after the Americans took over the islands from the Japanese during World War II.
  • The islands became independent in 1978 to become a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown, with a parliamentary system of government.
  • The Solomon Islands had cultivated strong ties with Taiwan, which ended with the emergence of the current government in Honiara.
  • In 2019, the new government headed by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched Taiwan for China.

Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?

  • Need for diplomatic recognition: The Pacific islands are among the few regions in the world where China has competition from Taiwan for diplomatic recognition.
    • China considers Taiwan to be a renegade territory awaiting reunification, and opposes its recognition as an independent state on the international stage.
    • Hence, any country which has to officially establish relations with China will have to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
  • Vote bank: The small Pacific island states act as potential vote banks for mobilising support for the great powers in international fora like the United Nations.
  • Exclusive Economic Zones: Moreover, these states have disproportionately large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones when compared to their small sizes, the reason why these ‘small island states’ are seen also seen as ‘big ocean states’.
  • Mineral resources: Solomon Islands, in particular, have significant reserves of timber and mineral resources, along with fisheries.
  • Strategic location: But more importantly, they are strategically located for China to insert itself between America’s military bases in the Pacific islands and Australia.
    • This is especially significant in the current scenario, given the emergence of the AUKUS which seeks to elevate Australia’s strategic capabilities vis-à-vis China through Anglo-American cooperation.
  • Anti-China riots: Nonetheless, the anti-China nature of the 2021 riots in Honiara turned out to be the immediate trigger for Beijing to ramp up its security cooperation with the Solomon Islands.

Concluding thoughts

It is true that Solomon Islands is a sovereign country and it is independent to take decision with respect to its foreign. The above though should not permit Solomon Islands to convert itself into race for strategic positioning and brinkmanship in the Pacific.

It must also become a matter of concern for the international community if China starts exercising hegemony over the island country and influences its domestic politics. Therefore the international community, including India, should enhance its engagement with Solomon Islands and see to it that it does not become pawn to China’s rising ambitions.

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