The China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement: Clear and Present Danger

Revelations during the Australian federal election that the Solomon Islands Government was in the process of concluding a secret security agreement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sounded alarm bells in security circles. It generated dire predictions of a future Chinese naval base and permanent deployment of Chinese troops in the Solomons, seriously affecting Australia’s national security. Alarmist voices predicted the Solomon Islands was becoming another ‘Cuba’ off our coast, and the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, gave ominous warnings about ‘red lines’ that must not be crossed. This politically-driven rhetoric shifted attention away from very real concerns over the broad potential application of the agreement.

The leaked draft text of the Framework Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation (hereafter the Security Agreement), which knowledgeable sources advise is not significantly different from the final text, only sets out mechanisms by which Chinese security forces (military, armed police or police) might be deployed to the Solomon Islands. It says nothing about cooperation, training, providing equipment, exchanges, or other modes of cooperation. These are covered in a separate 2019 agreement.

This is not, in itself, out of order. Australia has an Agreement Concerning the Basis for Deployment of Police, Armed Forces, and other Personnel to Solomon Islands signed on 14 August 2017. The agreement with China enables a much broader range of Chinese deployments, but is scant on details— just over four pages, compared with more than twelve pages in the Australian agreement. Our agreement sets out clear formal procedures for the Solomon Islands to initiate and terminate deployments, as well as command and control arrangements, legal arrangements and authorities, all designed to preserve Solomon Islands’ sovereign control over any deployments. The agreement with China lacks such details or protections.

The broad scope of potential application of the agreement with China is of particular concern. The Scope of Cooperation is set out in Article 1, and comes in two distinct parts.

Solomons-initiated Chinese Deployments

The first half of Article 1 provides for the Solomon Islands Government, for ‘its own needs’, to request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to the Solomons ‘to assist in maintaining social order, protecting peoples’ lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or to provide assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties.’ The term ‘maintaining social order’ has a much broader meaning in China, and the provision for ‘other tasks agreed upon by the parties’ opens a wide range of possibilities.

The most obvious application of these provisions would be in the case of civil conflict or serious breakdown of law and order such as during the riots in November 2021. These are the kind of circumstances where the Solomons have traditionally turned to Australia, with support from other Pacific nations. Why then, did the Solomon Islands Government look elsewhere for such assistance? It is likely that the Chinese side offered this assistance, pointing to the targeting of ethnic Chinese businesses in the 2021 riots, asserting its understandable interest in helping protect fellow Chinese.

However, there are also some circumstances under which Australia might be unwilling to send troops. For example, should the Solomons experience a constitutional crisis whereby a government was trying to hold onto power illegally, or if it faced a largely peaceful popular uprising, Australia might have qualms about being called on to help forcefully ‘restore order’, whereas China might not. While not suggesting that this came into the thinking of the Sogavare Government, the Agreement could be used to underpin a drift to more authoritarian rule.

China-initiated Chinese Deployments

The second half of the Scope of Cooperation set out in Article 1 allows China, ‘according to its own needs’, to make ship visits, stop-overs or transits, carry out logistical replenishment, and to use Chinese forces ‘to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands’. There are no equivalent provisions in the Australian agreement. It is very unusual, if not an infringement on sovereignty, for an agreement of this kind to allow for a country to undertake military or security activities in another country ‘according to its own needs’.

Previous attention has mostly focused on the provision for ships’ visits, but the text allowing for Chinese forces to ‘protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands’ is equally alarming. As China rolls out increasing numbers of projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the scope to activate this provision to deploy Chinese security forces to the Solomon Islands to protect its investments increases. The Agreement potentially allows China to seek to station security personnel in the Solomon Islands for an open-ended time to protect any projects that it is building or operating. In northern Laos and Myanmar, the BRI has led to establishment of Special Economic Zones that appear to exercise a form of extraterritoriality in which China administers all aspects of the zone, including security.

It is striking that the Agreement lacks any details for process or constraints on Chinese-initiated deployments — only a vague requirement for ‘consent’. This contrasts with requirements on Solomon Islands-initiated deployments set out in Article 3 of the same Agreement, which requires formal written requests from the Solomon Islands, including details of the security situation, the forces requested (and number), the duties of the personnel to be sent, and the duration of the mission. No such provisions apply to Chinese-initiated deployments — only some form of ‘consent’, which can come from the Solomon Islands Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Police, or the National Security and Correctional Services.

The vagueness of the wording even leaves open the possibility of a blanket consent, for example, for Chinese vessels to come and go as they please. Given China’s well-known proclivity to use inducements to secure support for its objectives, and the leverage that China’s increasing investments in the Solomons will give it, getting such consent would not seem difficult. As things stand, this is a fundamentally unequal agreement that heavily favours China’s interests without protecting Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.

A Chinese Naval Base

Much has been made of the potential establishment of a formal Chinese naval base under the Agreement, though Prime Minister Sogavare has ruled out such a possibility. Yet China could gradually establish a de facto base under the current provisions of the Agreement which enables Chinese naval ship visits at China’s discretion; unlike naval ship visits by the United States and Australia which are conducted on the explicit invitation of the host government. The Agreement provides for port visits to carry out unspecified logistical replenishments (opening the possibility of armament replenishments). This is no small thing — during World War Two, being able to replenish in friendly neutral countries like Spain was invaluable to the German Navy. To support such visits, it is reasonable to assume China will invest in docks, fuel resupply and warehousing, which could well end up being effectively ‘dual use’ facilities, designed to support Chinese naval vessels alongside commercial ones. The Agreement could then enable China to deploy security forces to protect these facilities, creating a de facto base without the need to formally create one.

The Agreement should also be seen in the context of the draft ‘Blue Economy’ agreement now being discussed between China and the Solomons, which inter alia encourages cooperation in ‘distant water fishing’. The Solomons could become a forward base for China’s distant water fishing fleet, notorious for its non-compliance with regional and global fisheries agreements. This also opens the possibility that Chinese maritime security vessels would be able to operate deep in the Pacific to protect the illegal activities of their fishing fleet, as they do in the South China Sea.

A Question of Intent?

Some may question whether China intended the agreement to have such broad potential application. But China has a large and highly skilled Foreign Ministry with vast experience in negotiating international agreements, and an agreement of this significance would have attracted high-level scrutiny. The language is deliberately vague and open-ended. It is not credible that this was unintended.

A good indicator of the intent of the Agreement can be found in its secrecy provisions. Article 5 provides that ‘Without written consent of the other party, neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party.’ This means that without Beijing’s approval, the details of the Agreement must be withheld not only from foreign governments like Australia, but also the Solomon Islands Parliament and people. The secrecy provisions extend to ‘cooperation information’, which could apply to the very existence of a Chinese deployment. This kind of opacity does not suggest benign intent.

The potential strategic importance of some of China’s targeted investments also casts doubt on its intent. For example, in 2019, China and the Solomon Islands signed an MOU providing for a Chinese state-owned company, AVIC Commercial Aircraft, to upgrade nearly three dozen airfields across the Solomons. While it is doubtful there is a sensible business case for such large investments, this would potentially enable China to assess and upgrade airfields to a level sufficient for military use, and deploy Chinese security personnel to protect them. As China invests in other strategically important infrastructure, from ports to underwater optical fibre cables, its security presence has the scope to continue to grow — and in a country that has no formal armed forces of its own.

The Broader Pacific Context

The Agreement forms part of a broader geo-strategic push. China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅 conducted an eight-nation visit to the Pacific from 26 May to 4 June, bearing a string of bilateral agreements for signing, as well as proposals for broad regional cooperation agreements intended to substantially alter the balance of influence in the Pacific in China’s favour.

The Security Agreement, which was formally signed with the Solomon Islands during Wang’s visit, drove a wedge between Australia and one of its erstwhile closest security partners in the Pacific. At the same time, the Agreement also probably bolstered Sogavare’s prominence in the Pacific, positioning him as an advocate for expanded regional engagement with China.

There is no evidence yet that Wang sought to replicate this agreement in other Pacific nations on his itinerary, although secrecy provisions in such agreements mean it is unknown if China had already sought or been granted similar rights from other Pacific countries. Officials from several countries on Wang’s itinerary ruled out a similar security agreement, with their focus on collaboration spanning economic development, in particular fisheries and tourism, COVID-19 response and police training — collaboration plans similar to that which preceded the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement. Still, through its security agreement with the Solomon Islands, China may have established a benchmark for progressing relations in the Pacific under the BRI requiring its Pacific partners to agree to access for Chinese military and security forces as the price of investment.

On 20 May 2022, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, wrote a letter to fellow Pacific island leaders, clearly reflecting this concern. He expressed alarm at the draft China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development circulated by China in advance of the second PRC-PICs Foreign Ministers Meeting, held via video-conferencing from Suva on 30 May. He warned that China was seeking ‘control of traditional and non-traditional security’, including law enforcement training, supply and joint enforcement efforts, as well as cooperation on cyber-security and network governance, collection of biodata through smart customs, and Chinese marine spatial mapping. The Vision statement does not (as Panuelo wrote) specifically refer to ‘the protection of Chinese assets and citizens’ as in the Solomons Agreement, but projects detailed in it and the Action Plan would provide ample basis for China to press for similar access. Panuelo warned of China’s ‘intent to shift those of us with diplomatic relations with China very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them,’ and linked this directly to drawing Pacific island nations into a potential future war over Taiwan. Despite the very lucrative proposals on the table, the ten Pacific island countries participating in the Suva meeting declined to sign the proposed documents, primarily due to economic sovereignty and security-related concerns.

This, combined with Fiji’s decision on 27 May to be the first Pacific island nation to sign on to the US-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Biden Administration’s answer to the BRI, has taken wind out of the sails of China’s Pacific push. But Chinese largesse remains a powerful temptation for Pacific nations frustrated with the pace of their economic development. China can be expected to regroup and press forward with these countries: more likely on a bilateral basis, with security cooperation continuing to feature.

A 27 May article on Wang Yi’s visit to Kiribati in the The Global Times, famous for giving ‘unofficial’ voice to Chinese threats and warnings, offered insight into current strategic thinking about the Pacific in Beijing. The article quotes a Chinese academic who, referring to US military basis in the northwest Pacific, says that ‘If China sets up a military base in Kiribati, the US’s first and second island chains would be meaningless.’ China is pursuing plans to upgrade an almost two-kilometre long World War Two-era military airstrip on the remote and virtually uninhabited island of Kanton, nearly 1,800 kilometres east of the Kiribati capital, ostensibly to support commercial air travel between the capital Tarawa and other islands, but with obvious strategic value to China.

The Security Agreement also serves to extend Beijing’s influence within overseas Chinese communities, both in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific. China has been increasingly asserting its responsibility to protect all ethnic Chinese – not just PRC citizens. Seen in the context of the 2021 anti-Chinese riots, the Solomons Security Agreement represents a concrete step towards protecting these communities, creating a greater sense of psychological dependency on China and increasing China’s political influence through Chinese communities.

What Should Australia Do?

The Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation well within its rights to enter into any agreement with anyone it wishes. Australia might have done something to forestall the Security Agreement if it had cultivated a good enough relationship with the Solomons to have ensured sufficient foreknowledge and consultation. At this point, the Agreement is a fait accompli. Australia needs to focus its efforts on limiting any negative impact of the Agreement, both in the Solomons and across the Pacific, and restoring Australia’s position of partner of first choice.

The election of the Albanese government has provided an excellent opportunity for a substantial reset of Australia’s relations with the Pacific that will also help to address the challenge posed by China’s diplomatic offensive. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s decision to make her first bilateral visit, just four days after being sworn in, to Fiji was well received in the Pacific. Fiji is one of the largest and most influential Pacific island nations and home to the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat. Equally important was Wong’s commitment to visit more Pacific island nations in the coming months, already started with visits to Samoa and Tonga, and Prime Minister Albanese’s commitment to attend the next Pacific Island Leaders Meeting in Suva in July. Intensive engagement at the highest levels will be essential to restoring Australia to the position of first partner of choice for the Pacific.

The key themes articulated during Wong’s visit to Fiji resonated well — recognition of the centrality of climate change to the security and economies of the Pacific; commitment to taking real action domestically on the climate crisis and to cooperative action through the new Australia-Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership; a respectful and supportive relationship that listens to the concerns of Pacific partners; valuing the contribution Pacific island people have made to Australian society; and concrete measures to support Pacific aspirations, ranging from increased aid to deeper defence and maritime cooperation to expanding opportunities for Pacific workers in Australia. Wong pointedly noted that closer relations with Australia came “without strings attached.” Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama described his meeting with Wong as “wonderful”. But maintaining this very positive response will depend on actions to give substance to the positive atmosphere, in particular strong action on climate change.

The Labor government’s commitment to spend an additional $525 million on development cooperation in the Pacific is also a good start towards improving relations and establishing Australia as a partner of choice. But Australia will never win a dollar-for-dollar competition with China. We need to focus on areas of comparative advantage, governance and systems resilience to minimise the scope for Chinese investment to turn into political leverage, and where we can, try to deny China control over strategically-important assets and infrastructure. And we need to do a better job of mobilising aid and investments from like-minded countries to give ballast to our efforts.

Australia needs to carefully examine what led the Solomon Islands Government to conclude its secret security agreement with China — both to enable us to take possible remedial action and to learn lessons for the future. From the Solomons’ perspective, the Agreement not only facilitates greater Chinese investment, but provides leverage with Australia and other traditional partners to demand more aid, unconditional security assistance, and greater diplomatic clout (evidenced by the US announcement in Fiji on 12 February that it would reopen its embassy in Honiara).

Neutralizing the Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands, which remains the most advanced potential Chinese strategic foothold in the Pacific, should be a high priority for the new Australian government. While respecting the Solomons’ sovereign right to enter into such arrangements and the economic development aspirations that underpin it, we need to explain — both to the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations — the specific reasons for Australia’s concern, and encourage the Solomons to limit the Agreement’s application to protect their sovereignty. This needs to happen behind closed doors. Pacific island countries do not respond well to megaphone diplomacy.

We could encourage the Solomon Islands to consider adopting implementing legislation that requires clear definition of the scope of any Chinese deployments and sets out processes to ensure the rigorous assessment of any proposals. The Solomons could also consider mandating transparency for any requests for the deployment of Chinese military or security forces on its soil under the Agreement; or even require explicit, case-by-case Parliamentary approval of any China-initiated deployments.

We should give more substance to our rhetoric about the strategic importance of our relationships with the Pacific by establishing serious, high-level strategic consultations with every Pacific country, and even some low-level intelligence-sharing arrangements, so that each fully understands our perspective, knows its own views are understood and respected in turn, and is well equipped to make fully informed decisions. Australia needs to make it clear that it no longer thinks of the Pacific as our ‘backyard’.

We should also explore with Pacific island countries how we might help strengthen the capacity of their governments to navigate this increasingly complex and contested strategic environment. Capacity-building in strategic analysis and policy development, and on international law and treaty drafting, could assist Pacific countries to protect their sovereignty when entering into any future agreements.

Finally, we should encourage the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other partners to become more engaged in the South Pacific. That the United States previously had no embassy in the Solomons, allowing China to build influence, is as much an Australian foreign policy failure as it is an American one.

The Security Agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is a fundamentally unequal agreement. It has the potential to significantly alter the strategic environment in the South Pacific. It is essential that Australia and other concerned nations work with the Solomon Islands government to limit its application and minimise the possibility of it being replicated elsewhere in the Pacific.

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