Australia’s Got a Solomon Islands Headache (Again)

China’s expansion into the South Pacific caught Australia and the United States off guard.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Solomon Islander Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Solomon Islander Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Solomon Islander Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. Thomas Peter/Pool/Getty Images

Analysts have dubbed Australia’s upcoming elections a “khaki election”—one influenced by wartime rhetoric—as incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison has zeroed in on rising security tensions in the Pacific islands during the final months of his campaign.

The tension came after the Solomon Islands—a small nation to the northeast of Australia, where the United States lost around 7,000 troops in an island-hopping campaign against Japan in World War II—signed a security pact with China in April that would allow Beijing to deploy armed police and military personnel to the island, according to a draft of the document leaked by opposition parties.

National security has become a hot-button issue for candidates in the lead-up to Australia’s elections this Saturday. The broad, “nontransparent” language used in the written pact between the Solomon Islands and China has made officials and analysts wary of Beijing’s intentions as China in recent years has more aggressively expanded its military and diplomatic footprint in the Southern Pacific. China has also proposed building a major wharf in Vanuatu and has established military cooperation with Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga.

Analysts have dubbed Australia’s upcoming elections a “khaki election”—one influenced by wartime rhetoric—as incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison has zeroed in on rising security tensions in the Pacific islands during the final months of his campaign.

The tension came after the Solomon Islands—a small nation to the northeast of Australia, where the United States lost around 7,000 troops in an island-hopping campaign against Japan in World War II—signed a security pact with China in April that would allow Beijing to deploy armed police and military personnel to the island, according to a draft of the document leaked by opposition parties.

National security has become a hot-button issue for candidates in the lead-up to Australia’s elections this Saturday. The broad, “nontransparent” language used in the written pact between the Solomon Islands and China has made officials and analysts wary of Beijing’s intentions as China in recent years has more aggressively expanded its military and diplomatic footprint in the Southern Pacific. China has also proposed building a major wharf in Vanuatu and has established military cooperation with Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga.

Australia’s defense policy in the Pacific has long been “strategically benign,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, relying on the country’s geographical insulation from threats in the north rather than building up a network of bilateral military and security agreements. Australia has strategically aligned with the United States since World War II, but it has maintained economic ties with China. Meanwhile, the Pacific islands have maintained a posture of neutrality, staying “friendly to all,” said Sora, who has had postings to the Solomon Islands as an Australian diplomat. “This is between China and the U.S.”

China’s inroads into the Solomon Islands worry Canberra and Washington for different reasons. For Australia, the arrival of any potentially hostile foreign power so close to its shores—even if only in the guise of diplomatic security or police trainers—brings back memories of its near strangulation in the summer of 1942 from those same islands. For the United States, which has spent the past 10 years trying to pivot to Asia, seeing China make diplomatic inroads in a country right next to one of its biggest regional security partners is a direct affront.

The April deal quickly sounded alarm bells in the United States and Australia, prompting U.S. President Joe Biden’s Asia tsar, Kurt Campbell, to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, whose doors had been shuttered since 1993. Australia, hoping to appease the island chain’s mercurial prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, agreed with the Solomon Islands to set up a post on the country’s eastern border and provide an emergency services communication network. The deal also spurred heightened anxiety in Japan, which sent a batch of government officials to the islands after news of the security deal broke.

Chinese officials have pledged that they will not set up a military base on the island, though Beijing also pledged not to militarize the South China Sea before doing just that. However, the deal’s provisions will likely see Chinese police train their Solomon Island counterparts, sparking concerns that Beijing could export its brand of violent authoritarian crackdowns against civil disobedience deeper into the South Pacific. Sogavare used force to resist calls to resign last year after the government recognized China instead of Taiwan, deploying riot police to crack down on violent demonstrations.

“Both Australia and the U.S. see this as a significant security threat,” said Mick Ryan, a recently retired two-star major general in the Australian Army. “From the Chinese perspective, this is a way of getting back at Australia for showing leadership to push back [on China]. … They want to carve off American allies.” Chinese efforts to influence Sogavare are already being seen, experts said: Training teams have shown up on the island, which does not have its own military, to beef up the skills of its local police. 

Ryan said the appearance of a new Chinese outpost north of Australia could force Canberra to put more intelligence resources into an area it hasn’t traditionally seen as a possible security threat. China has in the past established dual-use facilities in Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, and Cambodia that have started under the guise of being civilian facilities before Beijing abruptly started to use them for military purposes. 

“The Australians and Americans will be looking at these kinds of Chinese projects that are similar to what they’ve done in the South China Sea,” he said. “They were never going to be militarized, and then all of a sudden, guess what?” 

The United States is trying, belatedly, to respond, investing another $150 million in Southeast Asia—not including the Solomon Islands, Biden said last week at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, the latest signal that the Biden administration is still trying to preempt Chinese military advances in the South Pacific. And Australia provided around $174 million in development aid to the Solomon Islands in 2020—more than at any time in recent memory—as part of a policy that Australia has dubbed the “Pacific Step-Up.” 

But there are increasing fears among experts in both Washington and Canberra that the money will be too little, too late. 

U.S. and Australian officials don’t expect to derail the agreement at this point, but experts said both countries could create constraints around its implementation. There is a concern that China can outspend the United States and Australia in under-the-table deals to line the pockets of officials in South Pacific islands. The Lowy Institute reported this year that Beijing has spent around $170 million to aid Kiribati, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea—and Kiribati has responded by allowing Chinese fishermen into its waters. 

“[China] has a legitimate right to pursue its interests, but it does so in such a zero-sum way so that it seeks not just [an] advantage for itself but to diminish the influence and standing of others,” said Richard Maude, a former deputy secretary for the Indo-Pacific Group in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “We just have to recognize that that’s the game we’re in, and they play it hard. They have tools, including corruption, that they are happy to deploy that we won’t.”

Although Sogavare has said repeatedly that his government will not permit China to militarize, there is still concern over whether China’s new Pacific posting would operate as a military base in all but name. It’s hard to tell whether China will use its new foothold in the Solomon Islands as “bases,” ports with the capacity to fuel and service ships, or “places,” where commercial ships can dock, said Jacob Stokes, a fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

There is a tendency among great powers to be “arrogant” about the policies toward the region, said Darshana Baruah, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she leads the Indian Ocean Initiative. Large countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia have continuously failed to acknowledge the agency of small island nations, even as they sit in strategic geographic locations across key communication lanes, Baruah said. Although U.S. officials have pledged to work with Pacific Islanders to address climate change, illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and human smuggling in the past, there hasn’t been action to back it up, Baruah said. 

“The U.S. was certainly missing for the last four decades,” she said.

And there are other factors that have contributed to the sudden diplomatic rupture. Due to the pandemic, even online conversations between the Australian government and its counterparts in the Pacific islands were limited because digital connectivity isn’t great in the Pacific, said Sora, the fellow from the Lowy Institute. 

Other things could also be getting lost or misconstrued in translation. ​​It’s normal for leaders in the Pacific to seem more muted compared to those in the West, like Sogavare’s downplaying of what the deal with China means for its position of neutrality. In the Pacific, there’s a cultural and political norm that sensitive issues are to be discussed privately and in a calm manner—instead of being announced through media releases and on camera, Sora said. 

“The U.S. is very forward-leaning in the geopolitical contest language,” Sora added. “And the Pacific is less so.”

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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