Since the 24th of March last month, several Western countries including the United States and Australia have raised their voices over a new security pact or ‘policing deal’ made between the Solomon Islands and China. The deal allows China to send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the South Pacific island country to ‘maintain social order’. This comes following major civil unrest in the Solomon Islands November last year.
However, rumours about this pact have involved permissions for Chinese sea vessels to dock at the Solomon Islands for logistical refuelling and even the alleged ‘possibility’ of constructing naval bases. This has caused vocal unrest among Australia and New Zealand, western rivals to China 2000km away from the Solomon Islands who also accused there being pressure upon their neighbour to take this deal.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated, “I think the events that you have seen most recently only highlight the constant pressure and the constant push that is coming into the region from interests that are not aligned with Australia and not aligned with the Pacific more broadly.”
In turn, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Mannasseh Sogavare addressed the nation’s parliament, denying any pressure from China and shutting down ideas or intentions of asking China to ‘build a military base’ within their borders. Furthermore, Sogavare even critiqued that the vocal concern raised by Australia is an insult to the Solomon Island’s sovereignty, its ability to manage itself and resolve its own security issues.
“We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs or have other motives in pursuing our national interests. This security pact is pursued at the request of the Solomon Island’s government. We are not pressured in any way by our new friends. And there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands.”
“Goodness, we’re insulted. We have no intention of pitching into any geopolitical power struggle. We will continue to collaborate (with China) to ensure that what Solomon Islands needs in a security space are addressed collectively”, Sogavare said.
It is important to note that Australia already has a preexisting security pact with the Solomon Islands since 2017, which has called Morrison’s public speech into question. Under that pact, Australian and New Zealand police were even sent to end the civil unrest in the Solomon Islands in November 2021. Sogavare and officials from China have doubled down and claimed that their bilateral deal will not impede on Australia’s agreement.
These events have further perpetuated the idea that Australia and the Wests preexisting anxieties about China are somewhat overblown. However, despite Australia initially seeming like a ‘crying wolf’ in this scenario, there may be weight to their concerns after all. In fact, instead of questioning whether the Solomon Islands are sovereign to make their own decisions, it is more important to ask whether the deal was made in the best interest of the Solomon Islands’ people.
Professor from Australian National University, Rory Medcalf, commented, “Yes, it is a sovereign choice. But the question being asked is (whether) this is in the best interest of small island states? Whose security concerns are more closely connected to issues of development, the environment, health, fisheries, human security rather than having a foreign military power on their soil.”
We must take a closer look at politics surrounding the Solomon Islands. The island nation located northeast from the coast of Australia is currently not united, as there is a political rift between the Cabinet and the Opposition Party who among other things detest the country’s new partnership with China. That partnership was suddenly born in 2019 when the Solomon Islands simultaneously withdrew its political recognition of Taiwan, ending 36 years of foreign relations with them.
Moreover, the Solomon Islands significantly contribute to China’s domination of logging, mining and fishing in the Pacific. They export over 90% of their extracted materials to China and among that, 70% of their timber exports seem to be the result of illegal logging. This one-sided transaction of primary resources has negatively impacted the Solomon Islands’ environment, sustainable development as well as worsened its corruption.
Peoples' grievances over the consequences of the China-Solomon Islands partnership is partly behind the civil unrest the island country experienced late last year, which was intervened by Australian and New Zealand police.
In all, the new security deal between the Solomon Islands and China as well as the reaction of South Pacific powers like Australia cannot be seen in black and white. On one hand, it is understandable for Australia and the West to see this event as part of China’s ‘Empire by Stealth’ strategy considering recent history with the island nation and its geographical nearness. On the other, we cannot ignore the Solomon Islands’ sincere interests to both improve its national security whilst branching out its foreign relations beyond just the West.
Stepping away from the perspectives of the Solomon Islands, China and Australia, Indonesia is also a nearby neighbour to these events and cannot ignore its implications. Indonesia has historically been known to maintain a neutral, non-block stance between the rivalries of the US, Russia and China. Especially during the Cold War.
It is within Indonesia’s values that post-colonial countries like the Solomon Islands be free and sovereign to pursue its own aspirations. The attempts from Australia to make them rethink its partnerships can be considered an intrusive overstep. Inversely, Indonesia cannot ignore the possibility that Chinese presence in the Solomon Islands may leave itself more surrounded by Chinese strategic influence. A political and potentially military ‘pincer manoeuvre’. Indonesia will be challenged to maintain its balance and potential role as ‘Peace Mediator within the Pacific’.