In the past two months, the China-Solomon Islands security pact has made news headlines in the region and beyond. It has become the topic of election debates in Australia. Senior delegations from the United States, Australia and Japan visited Solomon Islands to discuss the pact. New Zealand, Fiji (on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum as rotating chair), and the Federated States of Micronesia have also expressed concerns over the issue.
Under the security agreement, Solomon Islands’ government may request China to send police and military personnel to help stabilize the situation in the Pacific country and protect Chinese diplomats, companies, and diaspora in the event of future social unrest like the riots in April 2006 and November 2021. What is more concerning to traditional powers and the region is that this pact could pave the way for China to establish a military base in Solomon Islands, though these speculations have been dismissed by Beijing and Honiara.
Prior to the signing of the pact on March 30, 2022, China sent nine police officers to Solomon Islands in January 2022. They provided training to the Solomon Islands police force on public management, riot response and other tactical programs. The training was questioned by some opposition parliamentarians concerned about the impact on the country’s police, which have traditionally been trained by Australia and New Zealand. Another task of the Chinese police team is to provide diplomatic security to its embassy and offer security advice to Chinese companies and migrants.
More broadly, the growth of China’s engagement with Solomon Islands has been impressive since the latter switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in September 2019. Less than three years later, the relationship covers a wide range of areas such as high-level meetings, infrastructure support, sister-city relations (for example between Honiara city and Jiangmen city in Guangdong), medical team and COVID-19 assistance. The Chinese embassy has also donated materials and equipment like diesel fuel, agricultural contractors, and sewing machines to improve its relations with Malaita province, a place that has strong support for Taiwan.
The highlight in the bilateral relationship thus far is the China-funded sport stadium and facilities in Honiara, which will be used for the 2023 Pacific Games. Some commentators see this establishment as the single largest aid project in Solomon Islands since the country gained independence in 1978. The ground-breaking ceremony in May 2021 and the handover of the running track and football field in April 2022 were attended by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and his senior ministers. The two countries are seemingly still in a honeymoon period.
A key motive behind China’s endeavors is to showcase the benefits Pacific Island countries can receive if they abandon Taiwan and recognize Beijing. Also, there has been opposition within Solomon Islands’ society about the switch. This gives China another impetus to support Sogavare. Back in November 2019, the opposition noted that they support official relations with Taiwan. With Solomon Islands’ upcoming elections in 2023 (or 2024, if deferred), the opposition has made it clear that if elected, they will terminate this security pact with China.
The pact has attracted widespread debates among different groups in Solomon Islands and generated mixed feelings. There are obviously those who see the security pact as the surest way of enhancing Solomon Islands’ socioeconomic development, alongside continued engagement with other traditional development partners. The pact’s advocates say China will support the Solomon Islands government in providing a secure and safe environment for investors, who will contribute to the country’s development, a view that is strongly backed by Sogavare.
On the other hand, many expressed fears that the pact may give more leverage to China’s influence, which may ultimately undermine Solomon Islands’ democratic ideals, a fear also shared by leading political figures in the opposition. Among civil society, two of the most vocal groups are Solomon Islands Council of Women and Transparency Solomon Islands. They both raised concerns that the pact lacked holistic consultation, does not represent the interest of the general public including women in the country, and politically sells out Solomon Islands’ sovereignty to China. These claims have been rejected by the Minister for Women, Youth and Development.
So far, the provinces in Solomon Islands have not made direct commentaries on the security deal, nor have informal governance structures such as church groups and traditional leadership groups like house of chiefs.
For the great majority (75 percent) of Solomon Islanders that live in rural areas, the pact hasn’t received much of their attention. They are more concerned about their gardens, fishing grounds, or plantations of cocoa and coconut. This in part reflects the limited reach of government machineries such as media communications to remote and rural parts of the country.
A silver lining to the pact issue is that, the Solomon Islands will likely receive more attention and support from external players. The pact has come at a critical time, when the Pacific region is faced with growing pressure from both traditional and non-traditional challenges, including climate change, geopolitical rivalry, illegal fishing, COVID-19, and the disintegration of the Pacific Islands Forum, to name a few. The pact itself will bring fresh eyes – not only China, but newly re-engaged traditional partners – to some of the domestic priority areas needing urgent attention in Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands government seeks to alter the sense of doing business as usual to achieve elevated progress in capacity building, response, and preparedness for domestic uncertainties.
However, an outstanding challenge will be to strengthen internal institutional and organizational capacity in Solomon Islands, a necessary step before the country can reap the benefits from the geostrategic competition. Already, it is a “weak state” and a diversified country on many fronts – language, culture, ethnicity, etc. To what extent Solomon Islands can successfully deal with China remains to be seen.
It is likely that traditional donors will further step up engagement with the Pacific region in the wake of the deal. From Australia’s perspective, no matter which main party wins the federal election on May 21, Solomon Islands will receive more of Canberra’s attention. For example, the Labor Party pledged that if they form a new government, they will boost Australian aid to the Pacific by half a billion Australian dollars.
Alarmed by the security pact, the United States is expected to enhance their diplomatic, aid, and economic relations with Solomon Islands in the near future. Back in 2019, the Solomon Islands parliamentary taskforce established to provide advice to the government on whether to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing criticized the United States for its neglect of economic development in Solomon Islands. The U.S. proposal to re-open its embassy in Honiara will play a big role in facilitating this engagement process.
In the short to medium term, traditional powers and other Pacific island countries will watch closely whether China will seek to build a military base in Solomon Islands. The U.S. government has warned that they will “respond accordingly” if this occurs. The Australian government refers to such a base establishment as a red line. No doubt, a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands will greatly increase China’s military projection power in a region regarded by traditional powers as their sphere of influence. It will exacerbate the existing geostrategic tensions between China and traditional powers, and further split the Pacific region. By then, it is likely that Pacific island countries may have to take sides.