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China Spreads its Tentacles in Australia's Backyard as the World Looks Away

(Image: Reuters)

(Image: Reuters)

China, Australia and the Solomon Islands have witnessed extraordinary tensions over the Solomon Islands-China security treaty, provoking fears of a growing Chinese military presence in the region

China, Australia, and the Solomon Islands have witnessed extraordinary tensions over the Solomon Islands-China security treaty in recent months, provoking fears of a growing Chinese military presence in the region.

Located roughly 3,000 km away from Australia, the small nation of 700,000 people has now become the latest entrant into the broader geopolitical crisis emerging in the Indo-Pacific region.

Having fallen victim to the Great Power Rivalry back in the 1940s during World War II with the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Pacific island nation of Solomon Islands finds itself, yet again, in a similar position. The draft security deal has the key Indo-Pacific players worried due to the far-reaching implications of this decision.

The deal has been shrouded in secrecy, paving way for widespread speculation which has further aggravated the situation. While Prime Minister Sogavare has reiterated that the underlying reason for the treaty is his nation’s sovereignty, former Prime Minister Hon Rick Houenipwela has accused that the security treaty with China is entirely “in line with the PRC playbook” and that the seeds were sown back in 2019 itself when Sogavare dramatically switched the national allegiance from Taiwan to China.

There has been a slurry of angry rhetoric from all sides with China accusing Australia of ‘colonialist mentality toward South Pacific island countries’ and powers that have traditionally dominated the region calling the situation “gravely concerning”. Further, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has accused other countries of not respecting the tiny nation’s sovereignty.

What exactly is the deal?

While the final draft is underway and not much has been officially disclosed by both the nations, the leaked, draft version of the agreement paints an unpleasant picture. The seven-article document was loaded with enormous powers given to China.

Firstly, it permits China to become heavily involved in maintaining civic order through the deployment of “police, armed police and military personnel” in the Solomon Islands. Secondly, it allows China to use its forces, according to its own needs, for ensuring safety of Chinese citizens and projects in the country. Thirdly, China has the power to use Solomon Islands’ base to carry out logistical replenishment and have stopovers and transitions. This can be effectively called a Chinese semi-base in the country. Next, the agreement ensures increased control over public information, with the power of disclosing information only possible by mutual consent. Lastly, the agreement allows further addition and modification in the future.

The agreement is extremely alarming, given the exorbitant powers it gives to a foreign country, China, for the maintenance of peace and security on the island nation. It legitimises foreign military and intelligence operations in a country whose internal security is already extremely fragile. By not explicitly ruling out the possibility of a military base being constructed in the future or limiting the type of activities China is allowed to carry out on the island nation, the implications of this agreement are far-reaching and dangerous. It intensifies the possibility of an increased Chinese military presence in the Pacific region.

Why is Australia worried?

In all fairness, it is understandably concerning for the Pacific nation’s neighbors, but why should Australia be particularly concerned? History tells us why. The geostrategic importance of the region was evident during World War II when countries vied to gain influence in the region due to its critical role in maintaining a country’s logistical supply lines and its military force projection.

It is in Australia’s best interest for the Solomon Islands to be peaceful, stable, and friendly since they form a critical sea lane and vital communication route for Australia. An increased Chinese presence in the region could disrupt communication and shipping between Australia and the United States, a major maritime player in the region and an ally of Australia. Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, the Chief of Joint Operations in Australia, said the China-Solomon Islands pact would “change the calculus” of his country’s Pacific operations.

The situation is being described as “Australia’s Cuban Missile Crisis” by some, as closer ties with Beijing significantly reduce what’s traditionally been Canberra’s sphere of influence. Australia has been the islands’ main security and development partner and has invested heavily in maintaining law and order on the island over the years. It has been actively involved in projects such as – Coral Sea Cable, Australia’s Education Sector Support Program (ESSP), etc., but, despite such aid, Australia has been losing influence in recent times. It has been heavily criticized for having an overall neglectful attitude towards its Pacific neighbors, especially in the climate change department.

The gap has been widening between these neighbors and China has found the perfect opportunity to tactfully close it. This is a sign of concern, not only for Pacific states but also for the larger Indo-Pacific states.

The broader picture: Chinese expansionism

When looked at independently, the agreement might not evoke fear of Chinese expansionism in the region but when all Chinese developments in the region are connected together along with Beijing’s history of arm twisting smaller nations like Sri Lanka and Bhutan– it tells another story.

China’s geopolitical ambition is of a Sino-centric world order with China exercising maximum power vis a vis other nations, a concept regularly referred to as the “Middle Kingdom Complex”. This ambition requires displacing America from regional and global order, especially when US security policy pivots from the Atlantic to Asia-Pacific and China finds itself in a great power rivalry at a theatre it presumes as its own sphere of influence.

Yan Xuetong, a scholar of Chinese foreign policy, advocates for “moral realism” as a rising China challenges the United States for world leadership. As part of this strategy, a greater emphasis would be placed on the development of military partnerships abroad while promoting humane societies at home. China’s gradual buildup of its influence in the South Pacific over the past two decades is in line with this trend. A major portion of this influence is through “military and security cooperation”, a term China uses to justify its increased military presence in the region.

To predict how the global order will look under Chinese rule is beyond the scope of one’s limited knowledge, and thus scholars and enthusiasts of China engage in informed speculation while China continues to play a long and complex game of strategic chess.

Nonetheless, a security treaty between the Solomon Islands and China is one such development that could change the course of Asia-Pacific’s geopolitics. Despite Sogavare’s claims to the contrary, it is evident that this agreement is troubling, as it severely undermines the security in the Solomon Islands.

Esha Banerji specialises in Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:April 12, 2022, 11:53 IST