China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands: What you should know

China announced Tuesday night that it had signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. The deal, Beijing said, is designed to promote peace and stability and runs “parallel and complementary” to existing cooperation agreements with the Solomon Islands — an archipelagic nation of nearly 1,000 tropical islands and atolls between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

News of the pact came a day after the US announced it was sending a delegation of senior officials to the South Pacific nation to persuade them to pull out of the deal. Led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and National Security Council (NSC) Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, the delegation had hoped to make arguments that the US had “prosperity, security and… Make Peace” over the Pacific Islands and the Indo-Pacific.”

Now there are growing concerns that the newly signed Beijing pact will gain a foothold in the region. Last week, Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Seselja visited the Solomon Islands and urged its leaders to “consider” not signing the accord. He made the trip even as his government prepares for parliamentary elections – by convention, a period when diplomatic contacts are suspended.

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It’s rare that the South Pacific is so courted diplomatically. The US closed its embassy in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, 29 years ago but vowed to reopen it in February this year. That same month, Antony Blinken became the first US Secretary of State to visit Fiji in almost 40 years.

Behind the activity is fear that a new front has now opened in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the West.

An unconfirmed “draft” of China’s security deal with the Solomon Islands began circulating online late last month, sparking furor over its alleged terms, which included the possible deployment of Chinese security forces to maintain “social order” in response to requests from the government of China Solomon Islands.

Regardless of the document’s accuracy, the response to it reflects deep-rooted concerns about the future balance of power in the Pacific. like dr Anna Powles, the New Zealand security scientist who circulated the document, said on Twitter: “While it’s not authentic, it still offers some interesting insights into how geopolitical dynamics are developing.”

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, tells TIME that “the manner and timing of the announcement” matters. “Beijing unilaterally announced the signing shortly before the US delegation visited the Solomon Islands,” he told TIME. “I think that’s no coincidence.”

Here’s what you should know about the agreement.

Why are there concerns about the Solomon Islands pact with China?

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on April 18 that the agreement “opens the door to the deployment of China’s military forces in the Solomon Islands” and “sets a worrying precedent for the entire Pacific island region.”

After the signing, an NSC spokesman told Reuters that the agreement “follows a pattern that China offers shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation on fisheries, resource management, development aid and now security practices.”

Neither Price nor the NSC official cited the text of the contract, which has not been made public.

New Zealand and Australia have also expressed concern about the partnership as it could allow for a Chinese military presence in a region they historically viewed as their sphere of influence.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that there was “a lack of transparency in relation to this deal”.

New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern echoed the sentiment. “We see such actions as a potential militarization of the region and also from a Pacific security perspective we see very little reason for such a need and presence,” she told Radio NZ.

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But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has criticized such reactions. Speaking to Parliament on March 29, he said: “We find it very insulting to be branded incapable of managing our sovereign affairs, don’t we [to] have other motives in pursuing our national interests.”

He added that the country would not allow China to build a military base, but at the same time Solomon Islands would have to “diversify” its relations with “other partners”.

Canberra, which has a bilateral security agreement with the country, said earlier that it would continue to work with Solomon Islands even if the pact were signed with China. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison was criticized on Wednesday for not dispatching the elder Payne to court Honiara instead of Pacific minister Seselja. Penny Wong, the opposition party’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, told ABC News it was Australia’s “worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II”.

Kabutaulaka says the security agreement shows that the balance of power in the region has been disrupted. “China is a power that is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and has disrupted Western countries’ dominance in the region.”

Why does the Solomon Islands want a security pact?

In 2019, Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, to China. Since then, China has strengthened economic ties, included the Solomon Islands in its signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and promised to build a multi-million-dollar stadium in the country ahead of next year’s Pacific Games. Direct investments have also increased.

“Chinese companies dominate almost every sector of the Solomon Islands economy, from natural resource extraction to retail businesses and increasing support from the Solomon Islands government, although Australia is by far the largest donor,” says Kabutaulaka. “To understand China’s growing influence, one must understand the flows of Chinese capital.”

Reaction to China was mixed among the Solomons. Last November, protesters called for Sogavare’s resignation for the 2019 decision to end ties with Taipei. The protests escalated, leading to violence that saw several Chinese companies burned down.

However, the prime minister is sticking to his guns. On Wednesday, Sogavare said the deal was necessary to close “critical security gaps” and improve the authorities’ ability to deal with future instability. He added that Solomon Islands entered the deal with “open eyes”.

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Development plays a big part in the rapprochement between Beijing and Honiara. Tess Newton Cain, Pacific Hub project leader at the Griffith Asia Institute research center, says Sogavare believes Chinese infrastructure and investments are critical to the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He made it very clear that this is the economic path or an essential part of the economic path, and there is no question that China is the main player in Solomon Islands’ economic development,” she says.

Meg Keen, a professor at the Australian National University (ANU), says Pacific island nations see security and development issues as intertwined. “They want to see a strong commitment from their development partners to all security issues,” she tells TIME, “which includes climate change, human security, resource security, as well as traditional security.”

What are the implications of the pact?

While the pact will undoubtedly give Beijing a larger presence in the Pacific, Keen points out that “the signed agreement remains secret, making the full impact difficult to assess.”

Newton Cain believes there may be a domestic political backlash. “The issue of lack of transparency is a problem in the Solomon Islands, as it has been with other decisions by the Sogavare government, including the ‘switch’ in 2019,” she tells TIME. A senior opposition figure in the islands, lawmaker Peter Kenilorea Jr., is already warning that the deal will “further stoke emotions and tensions”.

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At the same time, according to Newton Cain, the fact that the US delegation to the Solomon Islands is taking place is “a positive sign that Sogavare is maintaining communication and is ready to hear from partners what their concerns are.”

Kabutaulaka says the pact will inspire greater Western engagement with Pacific Island countries, already seen in initiatives such as Washington’s Pacific Pledge, Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, New Zealand’s Pacific Reset and Britain’s Pacific Uplift. The reopening of the US embassy in Honiara is part of the same effort to counter Chinese influence.

“However, it is unclear whether this will reduce China’s growing influence in the region,” says Kabutaulaka. “Not yet.”

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Justin Scacco

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