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The “China Threat” and the Solomon Islands

Rarely has the Solomon Islands had as much attention as this. Despite being in caretaker mode as it battles the federal election, the government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison still had room to politicise its anti-China twitch. The person given the task of doing so was the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Zed Seselja.

In a quick visit to Honiara to have discussions with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Seselja stated that Australia remained dedicated to supporting the security needs of the Solomon Islands, and would do so “swiftly, transparently and with full respect for its sovereignty.” The Pacific country remained a friend, part of the “Pacific family.”

While not specifically condemning the waywardness of the Sogavare government in forging closer ties with Beijing, Seselja explicitly mentions that discussions included “the proposed Solomon Islands-China security agreement.” Using the familiar talking point of pushing regional familial ties, the Minister insisted that “the Pacific family will always meet the security needs of our region.” In a tone suggesting both plea and clenched fist, Seselja went on to claim that Solomon Islands had been “respectfully” asked to reject the pact and “consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks.”

The origins of this badgering stem from the Sino-Solomon Islands draft security agreement published online by an adviser to the disgruntled Malaita Provincial Government of Premier Derek Suidani. That, in of itself, was telling of local domestic tussles, given Suidani’s opposition to increasing influence from Beijing and his own tilt towards Taiwan.

According to Article 1 of the draft, the Solomon Islands may request China to “send police, police military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” for reasons of maintaining social order, protecting lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or “providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the Parties.”

With the consent of Honiara, China may also “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands.” Chinese personnel may also be used in protecting Chinese personnel and projects on the islands.

Amongst Australia’s talking heads and hacks was a sense of horror. Greg Sheridan, writing for The Australian, saw parallels with Japan’s aims during the Second World War “to isolate Australia from the US by occupying Pacific territories, specifically Guadalcanal in what is now the Solomons.” The same paper described the deal as “a nightmare in paradise.”

Canberra and Washington are also concerned by what is seen as a lack of candour on the part of Beijing, a tad rich coming from powers that mischievously formed the AUKUS pact in conditions of total secrecy. Article 5 expressly notes that “neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party” without written consent of the other party, which has been taken to mean that citizens of the Solomon Islands are not to know the content of the agreement. That would put them in a similar position to Australians who have an incomplete picture on the role played by US military installations such as Pine Gap, or the broader expectations of AUKUS.

The extent Sogavare and his ministers are being badgered by Australian dignitaries is notable. Their message: We acknowledge your independence as long as it is exercised in our national (read US) interest. This was the theme of the visit earlier this month from Paul Symon, chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and Andrew Shearer, Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence.

According to a note from Sogavare’s office, the visitors discussed “Australia’s core security concerns” about a potential Chinese military presence in the country. Both Symon and Shearer were told that Honiara’s “security concerns are domestically focused and complements [the] current bilateral Agreement with Australia and the regional security architecture.”

This view is unlikely to have swayed officials tone deaf to local concerns. The Biden administration, playing tag team to Australia’s efforts, has given Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, the task of changing Sogavare’s mind. He promises to visit the Pacific state along with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink, later this month.

US lawmakers are also keen to hold the fort against Chinese influence in the Pacific and are excited about the prospects of using Australian soil to do so. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham sees the garrisoning of Australia with US troops as an answer. “I see an opening in this part of the world to push back on China in a way that would fundamentally change the fear that you have of a very bad neighbour,” he told Sky News Australia on April 13.

The proposed Honiara-Beijing pact shows how neither Australia, nor the US, can hope to buy Honiara’s unqualified allegiance to its own policies. It worried Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who responded to the news of the draft by claiming that, “This is our neighbourhood and we are very concerned of any activity that is taking place in the Pacific Islands.”

To date, Solomon Islands has been treated as a failed state, a security risk in need of pacification, and a country distinctly incapable of exercising plenary power. Australia has adopted an infantilising, charity-based approach, shovelling billions into the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Australian High Commissioner Lachlan Strahan was quick to reassure Sogavare that Canberra would be extending the mission till December 2023, while also providing $AU21.5 million in budget support, a second patrol boat outpost and a national radio network.

None of these ongoing factors have prevented discussions between Honiara and Beijing on security issues. Chinese police officers were sent to the Solomon Islands in February, forming the People’s Republic of China Public Security Bureau’s Solomon Islands Policing Advisory Group. Their mission: aiding the local police force in improving their “anti-riot capabilities.”

Local politics, deeply divisive as they are, will have to eventually dictate the extent with which various powers are permitted influence. Solomon Islands Opposition Leader Matthew Wale is very much against the gravitational pull of China. Last year, he attempted to convince Australian officials, including the High Commissioner, that the draft was a serious possibility. With the prospect of further jockeying between Washington, Canberra and Beijing, Honiara promises to be a very interesting place. Along the way, it might actually prove to its meddlesome sceptics that sovereignty is possible.

 

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23 comments

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  1. Ioun

    The People’s Republic of China Public Security Bureau’s Solomon Islands Policing Advisory Group would not have to have aided the local police force in improving their “anti-riot capabilities” if the Chinese business community had acted in good faith over the last couple of decades. The selfish behaviour of the business community triggered the local push back. Is it that hard to understand.

  2. A Commentator

    On Binoy’s standard, Australia could invade and bomb the Solomon Islands….if they decline our polite request.
    I wonder whether Binoy would level the trenchant criticism towards our government that he directed to Putin…like “a comic book villain”

  3. Phil Pryor

    Our childish chump commentates again. Rent out your skull for money while it’s vacant. Primitive hatred rots its source. Be positive. (hah)

  4. A Commentator

    You have a habit of puerile insults and it does nothing to support your point of view

  5. Michael Taylor

    A C, your stalking of Dr Binoy is coming across as very creepy.

    We haven’t had any stalkers here since some bloke from Melbourne tried it a number of years ago. 🤷🏻‍♂️

    Getting back to the issue (which other commenters would prefer to do), as Michael Stringer pointed out in his article yesterday the LNP have shown scant regard for our Pacific neighbours. They’ve treated them like a stray cat they refuse to feed.

    PS: Fortunately for you I can’t tag team with Phil today as I really must mow the lawn. Speaking of which, I cannot recommend highly enough how great cordless electric mowers are. Not only are they at least a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than the petrol version, but they purr like a kitten, rather than roar like a lion.

  6. Michael Taylor

    PPS: An easy tip for commenters…

    If you want to italicise a word or phrase, put a * at the beginning and end of the section you want italicised.

    If you want to bold a section, put ** at the beginning and end.

  7. Michael Taylor

    You have a habit of puerile insults and it does nothing to support your point of view.

    Now that’s a wonderful example of projection.

  8. A Commentator

    I’m not stalking, he happens to comment.on international issues, which are of interest to me.
    I’m not particularly engaged with domestic politics these days.
    You’ll probably note that I’ve tended to avoid the threads on the mundane and pedestrian domestic issues
    And I’m sure you’ll agree that authors/journalists/opinion writers publish in the public domain in order to stimulate discussion

  9. GL

    AC,

    You may not be a stalker per se but you seem to have an obssesion with Binoy. Much like wam and the ongoing obsessional hatred of the Greens.

  10. A Commentator

    I’m entirely willing to be have my views tested. If people comment on them, I’m likely to reply.
    Those that don’t like my views are welcome to test them or scoll past. I really can’t see the problem with that approach.
    Binoy makes comments that are marginal and ridiculing/disparaging of Australia, but supportive of Putin.
    There should be no surprise that those that disagree are likely to say so.

  11. Phil Pryor

    We could (gasp) join in calls, notes, letters even, to world leaders in NATO, UNO, EU, national governments, popes, prelates, patriarchs, media maggots er, magnates, big business, even the self expanding Musk types, for ways and means to discuss and aim for PEACE.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Binoy makes comments that are marginal and ridiculing/disparaging of Australia

    Then please avoid the UK and Europe. Not many people over there like us.

    The ridiculing/disparaging was at intense levels. Carol and I avoided saying where we were from. It was embarrassing.

  13. Kaye Lee

    AC,

    You may not be stalking Binoy but you are not “discussing” the international issue that is the topic of the article.

    I am sure you are aware of the online tactic where the intent is to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from readers to engage in a fight or argument. Heaven forbid that anyone here would engage in such practices.

    There is a lot of truth in what this article puts forward, you must agree. We are not very good at respect or listening.

    I do, however, find some commonality in that Binoy focuses on the motives and failings of the West whilst rarely critiquing the motives of, in this case, China.

  14. A Commentator

    I was in France, Spain and Portugal just before the pandemic, and I plan to go back to France this year.
    I experienced nothing but a friendly welcome. But I’m a friendly and engaging character, so that’s probably the reason

  15. Michael Taylor

    Carol and I spoke to real people – there’s the difference.

    In England, Scotland, Germany and Italy we were hit with the same questions:

    Why isn’t Australia doing anything about climate change any more?
    Why is Australia so cruel to refugees?
    Why are Aborigines treated so poorly in their own country?

    All solid questions. It is our shame that these needed to be asked.

    Perhaps more Australians need to ask the same questions.

  16. A Commentator

    I suppose it depends on the people you meet.
    I found general disinterest in Australia, but lots of friendliness on a personal level.
    And there’s no denying we should perform far better on a range of policies. I particularly find our treatment of indigenous people appalling and disgraceful. Sickening.
    Nonetheless, I remain of the opinion that Binoy typically-
    + unnecessary disparages and ridicules Australia
    + generally provides cover and excuses for Putin
    + represents an anti western democracy orientation
    His articles are bound (and probably intended) to cause a reaction, so what’s the problem with reacting?
    Should people that take cheap shots, exaggerate, use sarcasm and ridicule (as Binoy does) object to getting a little of it in return?

  17. Michael Taylor

    A C, you make good points and I’m not denying any of them. Rather, I’m nodding my head in agreement.

    Dr Binoy does write some controversial stuff and I can’t say I always agree with him, but I do encourage autonomy with our writers. It is not up to I to tell them what to write about or expect they have opinions that follow mine. As Kaye Lee mentioned recently, I will pull a post if it crosses a line though.

    And, believe it or not, I encourage debate so I do appreciate hearing alternate views. We used to be called an echo chamber – I think we’ve truly shed that label.

    And… I think you’ve known me long enough to know when I’m stirring you. Gawd, you’d even be disappointed if I ever stopped. I prefer friendly banter to heated arguments. We don’t have to resort to shouting matches to make our point heard. But above all, I prefer informed debate. I don’t think there’s anyone here who does not engage in it.

    (Mind you, I’ve been known to lose my cool. But I’m working on that.)

  18. A Commentator

    No worries! I always enjoy being provoked and stirred…not shaken!

  19. Steve Davis

    Back to the article. : )

    It’s worth remembering that there was a time when the U.S. itself envisioned a peaceful world of mutual cooperation and trade under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, a forgotten legacy that China’s BRI is fulfilling.

    How times change.

  20. Albos Elbow

    Its no wonder our “Pacific Family” doesn’l give a toss about Scummo the Liar and Commander Potato Head and would rather do the business with China and not the Untrustworthy Australians.
    When Commander Potato Head starts making jokes behind their backs about Pacific Islanders having “the water lapping their front doors” they know just how sincere Australia is about Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels and the impacts it is having on Pacific Islands and our poorer cousins.

    #GROM – Get Rid Of Morrison..

  21. A Commentator

    Those that think the CCP’s intentions are benevolent should read Silent Invasion by respected academic and former Greens candidate, Clive Hamilton.
    Hamilton’s research illustrates the strategy of the CCP to undermine Australian institutions.
    It was publication of this book that shamed the political establishment into action.
    It even effectively deals with the “but look at the USA” response

  22. Michael Taylor

    A C, I hear it’s a horror story, which unfortunately sparked a lot of the conspiracy theories about 5G. I’m not aware of it being mentioned in the book, but conspiracy theorists don’t need much of a spark.

  23. Andrew J. Smith

    Anyway, down from the trees 🙂

    One has the sense that consecutive LNP governments, starting with Abbott, took their ‘eyes off the ball’ regarding Australia’s relationship and support for Asia Pacific neighbours, why?

    Seemed to gel with US GOP and related think tank policies, suggesting cuts in budgets/aid on libertarian economic grounds and Australia turning away from the region in favour of London and Washington on ‘Anglosphere’ nativist sentiments?

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