Are the Solomon Islands scary? How the deal with China caused consternation in the West

Are the Solomon Islands scary? How the deal with China caused consternation in the West

KIRILLOV Andrey

The Solomon Islands is a Pacific island nation with a population of less than 700,000 people. The country is located 2 thousand km northeast of Australia and 3.4 thousand km north of New Zealand. For a beginner unfamiliar with life away from civilization, the Solomon Islands may not seem like the best place to live.

More than a hundred years have passed since Jack London wrote his story about the islands in the Pacific Ocean, inhabited by Aboriginal people who are hungry for the flesh of white people, and local customs have changed significantly. For example, according to statistics, 97% of the population professes Christianity of various denominations, and this, by definition, means that believers should “love their neighbors.” However, the political history of the Solomon Islands shows that the spirit of warlike ancestors is sometimes awakened in modern local residents. And it’s not always easy to agree on them among themselves: the natives speak 120 languages, and only 1-2% of the islanders speak English – the official language of the local interethnic communication. Moreover, they still belong to different currents of Christianity, 

It is hard to imagine that in such a state, which is so complex in terms of its national and confessional composition, everything would be in order with the friendship of peoples. 

Inter-ethnic relations escalated most seriously a quarter of a century ago, when the usual tensions between neighboring villages and communities escalated into violent clashes. The underlying causes of these events remain unclear to me (and not only) today, but they led to specific consequences: in the summer of 2000, power was changed in the country. Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufaalu was arrested and, after being locked up for some time, eventually resigned. After a three-year period of instability, the next prime minister, Allan Kemakeza, turned to Australia with a request to restore law to the islands. Military and police officers from Australia and New Zealand quickly arrived in the country, supplemented by law enforcement officers from the neighboring countries of Oceania: Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. 

Chinese factor

In 2019, the authorities of the Solomon Islands made an important decision that involved the country in big world politics – they broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with mainland China. It’s not that no one has taken such diplomatic actions before – the “friends of Taiwan” club has been constantly shrinking since the representatives of Taipei left the UN half a century ago, leaving their seats to envoys from Beijing. There have also been reverse cases, but in general the principle of “one China” is respected by the vast majority of the world’s states.

Two years have passed, and the world media reported: anti-government protesters set fire to buildings and robbed shops in the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara. Due to the riots, the work of most government institutions and services was stopped. Very quickly, the protests turned into large-scale riots that covered most of the city’s districts. There was a shortage of food, medicines and essential goods, in some places the supply of electricity and water was cut off.

At the same time, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasse Sogaware, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC, said that the protests in the city were organized by powers that do not approve of the decision of the government of the island state to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan: “Countries that do not want to develop ties with China prevent our entry into diplomatic relations and respect for international law and UN resolutions, they are the ones who provoke and support the protesters.” Later it was reported that the riots were provoked by residents of the province of Malaita, located on the island of the same name in the east of the archipelago. They accused the authorities of unwillingness to develop the region and refusal to implement a number of large-scale projects on its territory with the participation of Western capital.

The head of the Australian government, Scott Morrison, announced military assistance to the Solomon Islands, saying that more than 100 employees of the Ministry of Defense and the Australian federal police would be deployed on the territory of the island state. The government of Papua New Guinea also joined in, promising to send about 30 peacekeepers to the neighboring state.

I think it is not difficult to guess that this, quite likely, could be followed by the removal of Manasse Sogavare from power …

But in the wake of reports of pogroms against Chinese shops and shops, “Chinese police consultants” with special equipment also arrived in Honiara, which meant a big change of scenery in the Solomon Islands. A new factor of local life arose – Chinese.

Signing history

Now China and the Solomon Islands are on the verge of signing a package of bilateral cooperation agreements. It is still unclear for certain whether they will include any document on a serious military partnership between a major power and a relatively small Pacific state. However, a framework agreement on cooperation in the field of security, judging by the statement made recently by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, has already been concluded by the parties. And at a pretty good level.

At the same time, the Chinese side refused to specify future agreements and does not specify when exactly the signing took place. “As for the contacts between China and the Solomon Islands, if there is any information, we will immediately publish it,” Wang Wenbin promised.

According to him, China has repeatedly expressed its position on the issue of security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands. “Taking this opportunity, I would like to once again focus on some points … The essence of security cooperation between the PRC and the Solomon Islands lies in the normal exchanges and cooperation between the two independent sovereign states, this is an important component of the comprehensive cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands,” he pointed out.

The official representative noted that the main principle of cooperation in the field of security between the two countries is the principle of equality and mutual benefit. Based on the principle of respect for the wishes and actual needs of the Solomon Islands, the two sides will develop cooperation in maintaining public order, protecting the security and welfare of peoples, in providing humanitarian assistance, and responding to natural disasters. He also noted that the method of security cooperation between the PRC and the Solomon Islands is open, transparent and inclusive, it does not target third parties and does not contradict existing bilateral and multilateral security agreements.

I will say frankly that the explanations of the representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the content of the future document were not made particularly clear. Apparently realizing this, Wang Wenbin added that China and the Solomon Islands allegedly “maintain contacts at all levels.”

At the same time, the media of some countries tried to clarify the Chinese-Solomon omissions. Reuters, citing the Parliament of the Solomon Islands, reported that a Chinese delegation will visit the island state next month and sign, among other things, a document, the draft of which was circulated in foreign media. According to him, China will allegedly be able to have a permanent military mission on the territory of the island state and build a military base there. On March 29, according to British media reports, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogaware of the island nation confirmed the authenticity of the data and said that work on a defense agreement was “virtually completed.”

The publication was the reason for statements by the Australian and New Zealand authorities, who expressed extreme concern about the expansion of cooperation between the Solomon Islands and China. The United States also raised concerns about the motives for the agreement. “We are concerned about the lack of transparency and the vague nature of this agreement, which follows a pattern of China making shady deals with limited regional consultations on fisheries, resource management, development support, and now security,” a National Security Council official said. White House. He also said US officials would raise the issue of the Solomon Islands during a planned visit to the region.

Disappointment and dissatisfaction

Australia was the first to complain. “Australia is deeply disappointed with the signing of the Solomon Islands-China security cooperation agreement announced by the Chinese government. We are concerned about the lack of transparency in the process of developing this agreement and note that it could potentially threaten stability in the region,” the Foreign Minister said. country of Maris Payne in a statement posted on the website of the Australian Foreign Office.

By the way, this state itself, which entered into a military partnership with the United States and Great Britain (AUKUS) in 2021, could not remove the concerns of Russia and China about the clause of the agreement, which implies the transfer of technology for building nuclear submarines from a nuclear state to a non-nuclear one. But this is something “different”, apparently, the Australians decided and simply ignored the request of Moscow and Beijing.

However, the minister noted that the Australian authorities “respect the right of the Solomon Islands to make sovereign decisions about its national security”, but are convinced that “the Pacific family is best suited to meet the region’s security needs.” “We welcome the announcement by Prime Minister Sogaware <…> that the Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military establishments by foreign powers, and <…> call on the Solomon Islands to engage in regional dialogue and cooperation as a first priority, before applying for security assistance to China,” Payne insisted. Like, indulge, indulge, but for the fence, no, no.

wide front

Further more. Representatives of the United States, Australia, Japan and New Zealand at consultations held in Honolulu, Hawaii, expressed common concern about the signing of a framework agreement on security cooperation by China and the Solomon Islands, as stated in a statement released by the press service of the National Security Council (NSC ) of the White House.

As specified in the document, the American side at the meeting was represented by Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for the Indian and Pacific Regions at the National Security Council, Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and a number of Pentagon officials. The consultations on “developments in the Pacific islands” were attended by “high-ranking officials from Australia, Japan and New Zealand”.

“The United States expressed its determination to intensify engagement in the region to respond to the challenges of the 21st century, including shipping safety, economic development, the climate crisis and COVID-19,” the document says. “Officers from the four countries present shared their concerns about the proposed framework agreement between the Solomon Islands and the PRC, as well as the serious risks it poses to the freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific region,” the National Security Council said.

According to New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaiya Mahut, the new security agreement “should be open to regional scrutiny” and be the subject of discussion at the upcoming meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), scheduled for June 2022. “Our task is to include this issue in the regional dialogue, <…> to start a broad discussion of the terms and conditions of the agreement between China and the Solomon Islands. As far as I know, a number of PTF countries are calling for this,” Makhuta said, noting that the conclusion of a pact between Honiara and Beijing refers to “issues of regional security, and therefore it is simply necessary to ensure its comprehensive discussion.”

Solomon Islands asks for the floor

It cannot be said that the islanders humbly listen to these teachings. Sogaware urged the states of the Pacific region to respect the sovereign interests of his country and international law, in accordance with the requirements of which the agreement was signed. “Security cooperation with China is in line with our country’s foreign policy, <…> is not directed against any countries or alliances, and is more related to ensuring the internal security of the state,” Sogaware said.

The prime minister also noted that “the government intends to strengthen and strengthen the police service and increase its ability to cope with <…> any threats to the stability and security of the country in the future.” In addition, he stressed that “the agreement with China was concluded in accordance with the national interests of the country and taking into account the interests of partners in regional security.”

At the same time, apparently, in general, it was decided to try to dispel the fears of the neighbors. Thus, it was announced that the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of the Solomon Islands, Jeremy Manele, will visit a number of countries in the Pacific region to explain to his colleagues the reasons for the agreement and “assure them that cooperation with China is aimed at ensuring peace and prosperity in the region.”

Nevertheless, the United States chose to build up pressure. The United States, in a special statement from the White House, warned the authorities of the Solomon Islands that they would respond if military installations were deployed on the territory of the country under the agreement signed with China.

The report also notes that a US delegation visited the Solomon Islands on April 22, which included Curt Campbell, Coordinator for the Indian and Pacific Regions at the National Security Council, Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as well as representatives of the Pentagon and the Agency USA for International Development. “… The US delegation noted that the agreement has potential implications in terms of regional security, including for the United States, its allies and partners,” the statement said.

“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, create force projection capabilities, or deploy military facilities, the delegation noted that the United States would then be extremely concerned and respond accordingly,” Bely said. home.

In response, according to the text, Sogaware assured the American side that “there will be no military base, no long-term presence, no capacity for force projection.” 

China also made reassuring remarks. “The allegations that China is allegedly building a military base in the Solomon Islands is a fabrication fabricated by a small group of people who are guided by their own ulterior motives,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a briefing on April 25.

Escalation continues

Chinese assurances appear to have had no effect. On the same day, on the 9News TV channel, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton called on the country to be ready for conflict in the region. “The only way to keep the peace is to prepare for war and be a strong country, don’t cringe, don’t kneel, don’t be weak. This is the reality today – the likelihood of conflict in the region is high, and <…> we should not assume that the current state of conflict no, it will last forever,” Dutton said, stressing: “China is currently on a measured course, but Australia must support other countries to stop any likely act of aggression.” He noted that the signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands creates danger for the entire region and increases the likelihood of a military conflict.

Moreover, the head of the Australian defense establishment argues that “the growing ambitions of China today can be compared with the ambitions of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.”

Beijing reacted very sharply to these attacks: “Individual politicians make crazy statements for selfish political purposes, propagandizing war and slandering China,” Wenbin said, commenting on the words of the head of the Australian defense department at the request of TASS. “The Chinese people and the rest of the world community are well aware [what lies] behind such disgusting statements,” he added.

What’s next?

Assuming that China does set up a PLA naval logistics center in the Solomon Islands — the same one that Beijing created in Djibouti in 2017, denoting its presence at the sensitive point of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, located between the Red Sea and Aden Gulf of the Arabian Sea, it is difficult to expect that in the new military-political context in the world, such actions by Beijing will be perceived as tolerantly as they were five years ago. Nevertheless, for China to backtrack in such a situation could mean “losing face.” Although, perhaps, there is some other solution that suits everyone?

Courtesy: (TASS)

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