A recent leaked document has revealed that the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific have reached a deal with China which outlines an unprecedented level of security cooperation.
About the contents of the proposed deal:
The document titled ‘Framework Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation’ was leaked through social media recently.
The document explicitly enables Beijing to send its “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to the islands on the latter government’s request, or if the former sees that the safety of its projects and personnel in the islands are at risk.
The document also provides for China’s naval vessels to utilise the islands for logistics support.
There have been speculations in the wake of this revelation that China might be building its next overseas naval base in Solomon Islands after Djibouti, which was also incidentally referred to as a logistics support base.
Dismissing the prospects for any foreign military base, the government of Solomon Islands affirmed the finalisation of the draft of such a deal.
The deal is not yet signed and it is not fully known whether the provisions mentioned in the leaked document are present in the final draft.
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 Vanuatu.
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.
Nevertheless, its inability to manage domestic ethnic conflicts led to close security relations with Australia, which is the traditional first responder to any crisis in the South Pacific.
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.
This was supposedly after Beijing offered half a billion U.S. dollars in financial aid, roughly five times what Taiwan spent on the islands in the past two decades.
It has been alleged by the pro-Taiwan Opposition that the Sogavare government has been bribed by China.
As the money from China flowed in, so did the adverse impact to the local population from Chinese businesses, Chinese labourers for Chinese infrastructure projects, as well as a perceived preferential treatment for Chinese interests by Honiara.
Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?
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.
The Solomon Islands was one among the six Pacific island states which had official bilateral relations with Taiwan.
However, in 2019, the Solomon Islands, along with Kiribati, switched allegiance to China.
This has left only four regional countries backing Taiwan, mostly belonging to the Micronesian group of islands which are under the control of the U.S.
The small Pacific island states act as potential vote banks for mobilising support for the great powers in international fora like the United Nations.
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’.
Solomon Islands, in particular, have significant reserves of timber and mineral resources, along with fisheries.
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 (Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.) which seeks to elevate Australia’s strategic capabilities vis-à-vis China through Anglo-American cooperation.
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.