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Don’t Overreact to China’s Solomon Islands Plans

Naval power projection is a long way out for Beijing still.

By , the program associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the Honiara International Airport in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on May 25.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the Honiara International Airport in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on May 25.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the Honiara International Airport in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on May 25. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns over China’s Pacific expansion reached a fever pitch with the signing of an agreement between the Solomon Islands and Beijing in April. A leaked draft of the agreement specified that the Solomon Islands could request Chinese security assistance and China could, “according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” as well as protect Chinese assets and citizens there. Although China says it has “no intention” of building a base on the islands, the recent U.S. claim that a naval facility is under construction in Cambodia has raised further worries about Chinese plans. To be sure, the Solomon Islands agreement is a concerning deal, but China’s ability to contest sea control deep into the Pacific is likely decades out.

The Solomon Islands would certainly constitute a prime location for a Chinese military base. A formal base—or more likely in the short term, guaranteed military access to logistics facilities—would facilitate Chinese power projection into Oceania within striking distance of vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) near Australia and New Zealand.

Political turmoil over China is not new to the islands. In 2019, the Solomon Islands shifted official diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan, causing political controversy that contributed to anti-government and anti-China rioting last year. Recognition paid dividends in 2019, when a rumored deal surfaced between a Chinese firm and Tulagi island for exclusive development rights, but it was soon canceled amid blowback.

Concerns over China’s Pacific expansion reached a fever pitch with the signing of an agreement between the Solomon Islands and Beijing in April. A leaked draft of the agreement specified that the Solomon Islands could request Chinese security assistance and China could, “according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” as well as protect Chinese assets and citizens there. Although China says it has “no intention” of building a base on the islands, the recent U.S. claim that a naval facility is under construction in Cambodia has raised further worries about Chinese plans. To be sure, the Solomon Islands agreement is a concerning deal, but China’s ability to contest sea control deep into the Pacific is likely decades out.

The Solomon Islands would certainly constitute a prime location for a Chinese military base. A formal base—or more likely in the short term, guaranteed military access to logistics facilities—would facilitate Chinese power projection into Oceania within striking distance of vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) near Australia and New Zealand.

Political turmoil over China is not new to the islands. In 2019, the Solomon Islands shifted official diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan, causing political controversy that contributed to anti-government and anti-China rioting last year. Recognition paid dividends in 2019, when a rumored deal surfaced between a Chinese firm and Tulagi island for exclusive development rights, but it was soon canceled amid blowback.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the Solomon Islands in late May as part of a wider tour of the Pacific islands only solidified the seriousness of China’s efforts. Wang’s trip aimed to encourage the Pacific island countries to sign a joint agreement that includes a variety of far-reaching provisions, such as police training and security cooperation, joint fisheries development, and a free trade zone. Great-power competition has indeed arrived in the Pacific.

Understanding China’s interests here necessitates explaining the “three island chains.” As conceptualized by both U.S. and Chinese strategists, the first chain stretches from Japan’s southern islands through Taiwan to the South China Sea. The second centers on Guam, and the third runs through Hawaii. Although Beijing harbors a longer-term goal of expanding its power projection capabilities out to the third island chain, this is decades off, and its short-term objectives are likely more modest: to expand its logistics and military access to protect SLOCs and defend at-risk Chinese nationals.

In the short term, China’s ambitions remain focused on the first island chain, despite Beijing’s naval ambitions having grown alongside President Xi Jinping’s assertiveness. The inauguration of what Beijing terms a “support facility” in Djibouti in 2017 marked the first foray of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into overseas basing in line with a redoubled effort to develop blue-water capabilities and elevate the maritime domain. Beijing has deployed anti-piracy missions to the Gulf of Aden since 2008 and conducted civilian evacuations in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. With this new naval emphasis, China incorporated a new formulation, “near seas defense, far seas protection,” into its strategic lexicon.

“Near seas defense” describes the PLA’s counterintervention approach to dealing with the U.S. military within the first island chain. As Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell have argued, geographic disadvantages and a tough neighborhood haunt China’s leadership. This geography renders its maritime environs restricted and enemy forces dangerously close. Its approach to defense therefore lies in erecting an anti-access, area denial zone that can deter and defeat intervention. Yet, while preventing U.S. intervention into China’s near seas is one thing, offsetting a distant naval blockade is another.

Thus, “far seas protection” aims to actively incorporate the defense of distant SLOCs during wartime. That’s an acute need for Beijing. For instance, China ships about 80 percent of its imported oil through the Strait of Malacca, making any interruption highly damaging.

Far seas protection also incorporates a second interest, defending Chinese citizens and assets abroad. The 2011 Libya and 2015 Yemen evacuations heralded the PLA’s burgeoning role as the defender of Chinese citizens and assets. From anti-China terrorism in Pakistan to fallout over Beijing’s support for the junta in Myanmar, China feels that it cannot rely on other countries to protect its overseas interests. Case in point, when the film Wolf Warrior 2 was released in 2017, Chinese state media extolled its portrayal of the PLA: “The highlight of the film is the dedication shown in the efforts from the Chinese embassy and the PLA Navy when evacuating overseas Chinese in the face of conflicts and danger.” The article continues by discussing the film’s ending message: “‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.’” Whether the PLA has the ability or willingness to actually do so remains questionable, but there is a pressing need for capability to match propaganda.

In the case of the Solomon Islands, chronic instability directly poses a threat to Chinese nationals and investments. Indeed, peacekeepers from Australia and other nations in the region have deployed on several occasions, most recently in November 2021 amid anti-China violence in the capital’s Chinatown district. In 2006, rumors that China and Taiwan had influenced an election spurred an anti-China riot, and more than 300 Chinese nationals were then evacuated. During that evacuation, China had to charter airplanes to remove its citizens and could not rely on its own forces.

Today’s China is a very different matter. The eight-point consensus announced during Wang’s May trip specifies that “China firmly supports the Solomon Islands government’s efforts to maintain long-term domestic stability, and will continue to conduct law enforcement and security cooperation” to build police capacity.

But China’s ambitions of far seas protection remain unrealized. While China hopes to push the United States out of the Western Pacific and Beijing’s military thinkers view the three island chains as barriers to overcome, a PLA capable of sustained distant combat operations in the Pacific is more dream than reality as of 2022. The original architect of the PLA Navy’s island chain theory, Adm. Liu Huaqing, targeted the mid-21st century for contesting the third island chain.

Fundamentally, China’s military focus remains on the first island chain, arguably until it can seize Taiwan and develop a resilient blue-water force capable of actively contesting sea control in the Indian Ocean or the South Pacific. The PLA Navy may launch periodic cruises, but it is effectively bottled up within the first island chain during wartime. Operations in support of near seas defense would constitute the majority of its combat efforts in most potential crises.

China’s efforts in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere should be viewed within this context. Beijing is not currently developing the PLA equivalent of U.S. main operating bases in South Korea and Japan. Indeed, even the facility in Cambodia will not likely shift the military balance of power in China’s direction. It is more likely that the Solomon Islands would see a “place” rather than a “base” whose wartime utility would be rather minimal.

Even if Chinese long-term efforts are intended to hem in or interdict Australia and New Zealand, the PLA Navy’s ability to do so is limited—and manageable. In Sri Lanka, the 2017 handover of Hambantota Port to a Chinese firm’s control sparked serious concern, but events since then have challenged the extent of Chinese influence in South Asia. The axiom that regional countries aim to avoid picking sides goes both ways, with countries willing to weaken ties with China for their own interests and economic influence lacking staying power. Moreover, a formal base in the Solomon Islands would take time to scale up. Establishing the base in Djibouti took several years from its first mentions in Chinese state media in 2009 to its official inauguration in 2017. Its expansion since remains modest.

Yet, from the perspective of U.S. and allied responses, short-term reactions such as high-level visits are not substitutes for long-term policy solutions. Worse still are implicit threats about “red lines” that only serve to alienate local governments. Washington, Canberra, and Wellington should instead monitor developments carefully and plan to counter China’s efforts via sustained engagement. The United States’ recent announcement of a reopened embassy in the Solomon Islands is a good start, as are the U.S. plan to invite Pacific leaders to Washington and Australia’s more recent outreach concurrent to Wang’s trip. But more must be done, especially with China’s narratives on climate change and development rights, both of which are viewed as sorely needed but often neglected by the United States and Australia among the Pacific islands states.

Ultimately, Beijing’s core security interests lie in the first island chain until such a time as it can project power reliably beyond—in other words, after acquiring Taiwan. “Far seas protection” is more ambition than reality in a contemporary wartime scenario, and U.S. policymakers should continue to focus predominantly on the military threat in the first island chain.

Lucas Myers is the program associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, where he administers the Wilson China Fellowship.

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