The Solomons security shambles, and what it says about us

Pickup truck in Auki, Malaita's capital (Terence Wood)

A spectre is haunting the Pacific. It is focused on Solomon Islands today, but has eyes everywhere and might pounce anywhere next.

No, I’m not talking about China. I am talking about us.

More specifically, I’m talking about a particular type of Western security pundit, who hypes danger and itches for confrontation. And I am talking about the way our politicians behave when they strive to win votes by stoking fear of the world outside our borders.

The saga of China’s “military base” in Solomon Islands demonstrates how unhelpful such behaviour is, both to our own interests, and to the people of the Pacific.

If you had the good fortune of missing the last few weeks, here’s what happened.

In late March, journalists revealed that China and Solomon Islands had signed a policing agreement. Someone from within the Solomon Islands government also leaked a broader draft security agreement with China. In April, this agreement was finalised and signed. (Its text hasn’t been released but appears likely to be very similar to the draft.) You can see the draft here. It’s short and clear. Solomons can ask China to provide police and military assistance. If, and only if, the Solomon Islands government of the day consents, China can “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands.” Permanent bases are not mentioned.

This, however, didn’t stop antipodean pundits from racing to hype the threat of a Chinese base. To be fair, few went as far as David Llewellyn-Smith, who demanded that Australia preemptively invade Solomons. He was an outlier (although it didn’t stop him from being uncritically quoted in the Courier Mail). But all spoke of a base as a near certainty.

Then politicians piled on. Penny Wong, who normally displays an impressive understanding of aid and the Pacific, decried the agreement as the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II”. Peter Dutton warned that Australia could now expect “the Chinese to do all they can”. (Although he added optimistically they were unlikely to do so before the election.) Barnaby Joyce fretted about Solomons becoming a, “little Cuba off our coast”. (Solomons is more than 1500km from Australia; Cuba is about 200km from the US.)

Amidst the racket, much was lost. Australia has its own security agreement with Solomon Islands. It’s more carefully worded, but it affords Australia similar powers to China. And China already has a security agreement with Fiji. Indeed, there was real talk of a base when that agreement was signed, but no base materialised, and the agreement has had no effect on regional security.

And as Scott Morrison pointed out, Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands prime minister, has explicitly ruled out a Chinese base. True, Sogavare is a political maneuverer who can’t be taken at his word. But a Chinese base in Solomons serves neither his interest, nor that of the Chinese.

It doesn’t serve Sogavare’s interests because it won’t give him what he wants – a stronger hold on power. Seen as the embodiment of a corrupt elite, he’s unpopular in Honiara. His election brought riots. As did his standoff with Malaitan premier Daniel Suidani. So he wants Chinese police training and maybe military assistance in times of instability. But a base won’t help. Solomons is a Sinophobic country and the obvious presence of a base will increase Sogavare’s unpopularity. It would also jeopardise the security support he gets from Australia, as well as Australian aid. (By my best estimate, based on Chinese promises, which are likely to be overstatements, Australia gave more than 2.5 times as much aid to Solomons in 2019, the most recent year with data.)

I’m not defending Sogavare. I’d rather Chinese police weren’t helping him. But a base isn’t in his interest. And he’s no fool.

A base isn’t in China’s interests either. I don’t like China’s repressive political leaders. But their military ambitions are limited to places they view as part of China. What they’ve done, or want to do, in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan is odious. But Australia isn’t next on their list. Outside of their immediate sphere of influence they want trade. They need trade, and the wealth it brings, to sustain the political settlement that keeps them prosperous and in power. Any war that saw China menace Australia from Solomon Islands would bring ruinous sanctions in its wake. (US bases in Guam and Okinawa would be a headache too, I’d imagine.) The broader security agreement is helpful to China: it gives them the ability to protect Chinese nationals and Chinese business interests if riots break out. But they don’t need a base for that. A base would be costly, hard to establish in a country with little available land, and quite possibly useless next time the Solomons government changes.

I’m not a supporter of the security agreement. But it’s not a base. And it’s not a catastrophe.

Our behaving like it’s a catastrophe is harmful though.

It’s harmful to countries like Australia and New Zealand, because the main advantage we have over China in the Pacific is soft power. Thanks to anti-Chinese racism and a healthy wariness of China’s authoritarian government, most people in Pacific countries, including political elites, are more hesitant in dealing with China than with us. Sure, money talks, and China can procure influence, but we are a little better liked. And that helps. Yet we lose this advantage every time we talk of invading Pacific countries, or call the region our “backyard”, or roughly twist the arms of Pacific politicians. The Pacific is not some rogue part of Tasmania. It’s an ocean of independent countries. That means diplomacy is needed, and temper tantrums are unhelpful.

Worse still, our propensity to view the Pacific as a geostrategic chessboard has consequences for the region’s people. Geopolitical aid is too-often transactional and poorly focused on what people need. It is less likely to promote development.

There’s an alternative: to choose realism over hype in our collective commentary. And to earn soft power by being a respectful and reliable partner. It’s not always easy. But it’s not impossible. Yet it has completely escaped us in the shambles of the last few weeks.

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.

21 Comments

  • Another player is just making claims to get involved on the Solomon Islands issue and it’s not anywhere near the Pacific but at the other side of the world. Aparently the EU simply doesn’t have enough on it’s hand with the EU Proxy War in Ukraine.

    EU to step up Indo-Pacific defence presence over China fears and Ukraine example

    European Union’s special envoy cites concerns ‘multilateral rules-based order will not be fully respected’ in region.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/18/eu-to-step-up-indo-pacific-defence-presence-over-china-fears-and-ukraine-example

  • Excellent piece Terrence.
    I particularly like your opinion on fostering respectful relationships between Pacific Island nations and larger nations. Such pathway may enable island nations to grow economically towards a better future whilst addressing challenges such as population growth and increased adverse climatic conditions.

  • Good article.

    Current developments raise major doubts about the abilities of our Defence Minister and (possibly) his Department. I say possibly, because he has publicly stated that he doesn’t always listen to his Department. The Government has been touting fear that China will build a naval base. But the latest revelations of the Chinese plan to develop Solomon Islands as an aviation hub. This points to another possibility: that they are going to project air power, not naval power. In which case, what use our nuclear submarines? You can’t sink islands.

    Second, it points to our hypocrisy about the “rules based order”. On the one hand, this order is what’s used as the pretext for Australia participating in military shows of strengths in the China Sea, including sailing between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland—even though Australia does not recognise Taiwan. At the same time, when China might possibly develop a military presence 2000km from the Australian mainland, this news is met with a rhetoric of panic and war. So: what are the rules? Either both are okay, or neither.

    Thirdly, and most important, despite Keating’s historical turn towards Asia, we continue to be governed by white Anglophones who see Australia as an outpost of the old British and American empires. We need to shed our colonial heritage. The alternative might be—as New Zealand puts it—to develop a “mature relationship” with China.

    The 21st c. as the “Asian Century” has been discussed for over 40 years, and history has shown this prophecy to be true. We’ve had plenty of time to adapt, politically—but we haven’t. This to me points to two urgent needs:

    First is to reform our politics and our parties so that our political community more accurately reflects and represents Australian diversity, and the close ties we have to Asia.

    The second is to become a republic: not so we can have an Australian head of state, which seems a weak and rather jingoistic argument; but so we can let go our ties with the Anglophone powers of yesteryear, and become an Asian nation.

    Our prior experience with the UK and the US show us that we can have a productive and peaceful relationship with global and even imperial powers without economic loss, and without being invaded. But that option is at risk if we continue to position ourself as the local outpost of those distant and declining powers.

  • Regarding wholesale and retail investments in PNG as mentioned above (Chinese selling Australian goods) it relates to risk profile and business costs (such as the Costs of Goods Sold and Gross and Net Profit as the most easy to grasp). I have been here in POM PNG for a week and am advised not to leave the hotel without the company of locals and a secure transport arrangement. I would like to go to a bank, buy coffee and fruit, eat outside the hotel without searching for days for a secure transport company with recognised service record. This indicates that there are retail management and operating costs post – wharf delivery of goods which make return on investment not interesting beyond bulk delivery. Frankly carping about brand name investment or lack thereof needs more thinking before publishing.

    • I’m not sure I totally follow this comment – perhaps you meant to make it on another post? One point I will note, in fairness to Solomon Islands, is that Honiara is a much safer city than Port Moresby.

  • Thank you Terence Wood. This is by far one of the best assessments I’ve read on the Issue of the Solomon Islands China Security Pact. I am in Cambodia and the country has faced very similar situations after the Khmer Rouge were defeated. Now the US and AUS draw red lines but what about the current War in Ukraine. Russia drew a RED LINE but US Pres. Joe Biden called it a No-Brainer that Ukraine should NOT join NATO. Now Solomon Islands seem to fall in a different category altogether?? I’d call it Hypocrisy by the Elephant in the Room. And YES, it’s us white superior people that now have our Gov. censor media like RT and CGTN and therefore blind their citizens on one eye. We’re on the way to a more authoritarian regime than most of us like to admit. Germany for 77 years had a policy not to deliver weapons in conflict zones. Now they deliver anti aircraft and other heavy weapons to Ukraine. That policy shift came over night and I wonder how much arm twisting of by the Elephant was involved to get the entire, currently German led EU under the same hood.
    All past wars by the US, beginning with the Vietnam war, Iraq and Afghanistan left thousands dead and their countries destroyed but none of them ever got the attention Ukraine gets, today. WHY??

  • And don’t forget Australia’s stand on climate change: increasing global warming by selling yet more coal in face of Pacific leaders’ calls for stronger action to combat this existential threat (see: Boe Declaration).

    • Thanks Tony,

      I agree: a more constructive course of action from Australia on Climate Change would be both the right thing to do for the planet, and good for Australia’s soft power in the Pacific.

      Terence

  • Excellent article, Terence! As with the French Revolution it’s too early to tell what the real consequences will be, but the squawking from some Australian politicians tells us a lot about their paranoia and ignorance, and about this country’s loss of skill and capacity in diplomacy, particularly in relation to the Pacific.

  • Interesting point of view.

    The issue is being used by Australian politicians for political points scoring. This has created a negative image of Melanesian countries.

    Solomon Islands is trying to address the real issue of economic security. There needs to be a stable Honiara so Chinese investors or investors from anywhere can operate their businesses and employ Solomon Islanders.

    PNG has a similar problem. We have a lot of young people graduating from universities and completing their year 12 every year. Many of these young people are looking for employment opportunities.

    I do not see any Australian or New Zealand retail or wholesale businesses operating in towns and cities around PNG. Coles and Woolworths do not have franchises in PNG, which is a bigger economy compared to other Pacific Island countries. However, we see Chinese retail and wholesale businesses selling Australian and New Zealand products in all economic centers around PNG.

    For the sake of their citizens and their investments, China will need to work with PNG or Solomon Islands to create a stable environment, which will help foster economic growth and most importantly address the issue of economic security.

  • I think you have totally misread Xi Jinping. He is no longer an instruméntale rational actor wishing to increase China’s GDP. Like many authoritarian leaders he want’s to make China ‘great’, which means empire. As with Putin, he considers accommodating behaviour weakness, while he respects and responds to tough rhetoric. If the EU and USA had been robust toward Putin, much earlier, he would never have invaded Ukraine. The same applies to Xi, I am afraid.

    • Never mind what he wants – the most important thing is what he needs, and he needs China’s economy to keep growing. That’s the crucial part of the political settlement that keeps him in power. And, for the economy to keep growing, he needs trade, not empire.

      I will concede, however, that his interests are neo-imperial in a specific sense: that is, he wants Chinese business interests in countries like Solomons to do well. And he wants those business interests to be safe. That’s what’s in the security agreement for China.

      For what it’s worth, this isn’t good news, as some of those business interests, particularly loggers, are not good for Solomons.

      But it’s all a rather different story from the one painted by our security pundits: that the security agreement poses a major threat to Australia and NZ’s safety. It doesn’t.

  • I suspect whatever “odious” things you think China has done reflects your own prior biases and doesn’t stand up to objective scrutiny. There is more objective evidence of Australian misbehaviour (Afghan war crimes, boat refugees, etc).

    By uncritically expressing prejudice, you are inadvertently helping legitimise a future war with China. Think about it. Are your beliefs about China really based on “peer reviewed evidence” of the quality that you would expect in a scientific claim? Much more is at stake here than some claim in academic literature.

    • Hi Kien,

      Thank you for taking the time to make a comment.

      I think you make a useful point: Western crimes deserve as much scrutiny as China’s. I agree. Indeed, I took to the streets of Sydney to protest the invasion of Afghanistan (not technically a crime, but I didn’t think it would end well). I took to the streets in Wellington multiple times to protest the invasion of Iraq. And I’ve protested in Canberra numerous times against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

      However, just because Western countries also commit morally deplorable actions doesn’t mean that it is ok for China to do so. And there is ample evidence of what China has done in Tibet, Xinjang and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong.

      I am ardently opposed to any war between the West and China. And I am in favour of constructive dialogue between the two “sides”. (You’ll see the most of my blog post is a critique of Australia and NZ’s overreaction to the non-base in Solomons). However, crimes against human rights do still need to be called-out regardless of who has committed them.

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

      Terence

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