Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare defends the security pact his government signed with China on Tuesday.
Sogavare told parliament the agreement with Beijing was necessary to address the “internal security situation” of the Solomon Islands.
The Pacific island nation has long struggled with political unrest, most recently in November 2021 when protesters attacked Honiara’s Chinatown and attempted to storm Sogavare’s residence.
A contingent of Australian police helped restore stability at the request of the government. Australia had also led a multilateral mission in 2003 after violence and a coup d’état in the late 1990s.
Canberra sounded the alarm over the China Pact when the draft leaked online in March, trying to encourage Sogavare to reconsider the plan. The United States and New Zealand have also expressed concerns over fears it could lead to China establishing a military outpost in the Pacific.
What is the security situation in the Solomon Islands?
The Solomon Islands, with less than 700,000 inhabitants, is a chain of hundreds of islands east of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean.
Its capital, Honiara, is on the island of Guadalcanal, the site of a savage — and hugely significant — battle between American and Japanese forces in World War II.
The former British colony has been in turmoil since the late 1990s, when ethnic tensions escalated to violence and a coup d’état in 2000 first brought Sogavare to power.
With the country in a state of near political and economic collapse, Australia and New Zealand have deployed troops, restored stability and signed a peace agreement.
The peace did not last.
In 2003, after the government asked for help from the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s main diplomatic group, a multinational Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was established, with Australia in charge of the deployment.
RAMSI remained in the country for nearly 14 years, despite attempts by Sogavare to oust the mission while in power.
Sogavare was re-elected prime minister in 2019, and months later he moved to sever long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the Solomon Islands in favor of Beijing.
The move was not popular with everyone in the Solomon Islands and Daniel Suidani, the prime minister of Malaita province, rejected the move, saying he would push for independence for Malaita, the country’s largest province.
The riots in November also reflected the lingering consequences of the decision to switch diplomatic relations.
Sogavare wouldn’t budge. He is invested in China and China has invested in him. Does this bring the citizens of Sols under the yoke of the People’s Liberation Army – the armed wing of the Communist Party? While the sovereignty of Sols is respected, it has regional implications. What’s the next step in China’s sights? https://t.co/fuVNNejRT9
— Dr. Shailendra B Singh (@ShailendraBSing) Apr 20, 2022
What’s in the pact?
A text of the pact has not been released.
The leaked draft suggested it would allow Chinese warships to stop in the Solomon Islands, and that Chinese police would be deployed at the request of the archipelago to maintain “social order”. Neither side should make the missions public without the other’s written consent.
“We intend to strengthen and strengthen our police capacity to face future instability by properly equipping the police to assume full responsibility for the country’s security responsibilities, in the hope that we will never rely on one of our bilateral security arrangements.” Explaining it to parliament on Wednesday, Sogavare said the pact was in line with international and domestic law.
Sogavare has previously said the Solomons have “no intention whatsoever…to ask China to build a military base” and emphasized on Wednesday that the deal was “led by our national interests”.
Opposition leader Matthew Wale was skeptical.
“All causes of instability, insecurity and even threats to national unity in the Solomon Islands are entirely internal,” the Solomon Star newspaper quoted Wale as saying on Wednesday. “This means that the deal, by allowing for military stance by China, has nothing to do with the national security of the Solomon Islands. I doubt the provision for this in the deal is unintentional, but has been calculated for geopolitical effects. On the part of Prime Minister Sogavare, this is a mercenary, on the part of China, it is an opportunity too good to pass up.”
When asked by Wale whether he would release the text of the agreement, Sogavare said he would talk to China.
What are the concerns of other countries?
Australia, which has had a security deal with Honiara since 2017, has been the most outspoken critic of the agreement, but countries elsewhere in the Pacific, including the US and New Zealand, have also expressed concerns.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is in the midst of a general election campaign, said on Wednesday that the signing of the pact signals “intense pressure” from China being felt by islands in the Pacific.
Foreign Secretary Marise Payne said in a joint statement with International, Development and Pacific Minister Zed Seselja that while Australia respected “Honiara’s right to make sovereign decisions”, it was “deeply disappointed” in China’s pact.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed and point to the potential to undermine stability in our region,” the statement said, saying Canberra sought “more clarity” on the terms of the agreement. and its implications for the region.
The opposition Labor party, which hopes to topple Morrison’s coalition, described it as the “worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the end of World War II”. Shadow Foreign Secretary Penny Wong noted that Australia had ignored warnings from Wale about the potential security pact as early as August last year.
In a statement on Wednesday, officials from Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan expressed “shared concerns about the security framework and the grave risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
For the record, I’m concerned about China’s increasingly visible presence in the Pacific. But Australia needs to fundamentally rethink how we understand and interact with Pacific states and peoples to address it: https://t.co/nNKO3lnM2b
— Joanne Wallis (@JoanneEWallis) Apr 20, 2022
The official announcement of the pact comes as Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, pay an official visit to the United States. Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Guinea.
The US has already announced its intention to reopen its embassy in Honiara, which has been closed since 1993.
What about China?
China is already the main export destination of the Solomon Islands, buying about 65 percent of Honiara’s exports in 2019, followed by Italy with 9 percent. Australia is the destination of less than 1 percent of Solomons exports.
China is also the source of just under a quarter of the country’s imports, followed by Australia at 13 percent.
When announcing the security agreement, Beijing described it as “normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Western powers “deliberately exaggerated tensions” over the pact.
The Chinese state media has labeled Beijing as a benign power in the Pacific, suggesting that it is the US that wants to build its military might in the region.
“The Solomon Islands need to realize that it is under Washington’s special focus as the US wants to use it as a pawn to contain China,” the Global Times tabloid wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday.