On April 19, China announced the signing of a wide-ranging security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The deal sparked widespread controversy because it is clearly linked to Beijing’s strategy to strengthen its influence and presence in the Pacific Ocean region against the backdrop of China’s conflict with a camp, led by the United States, that aims to limit and encircle its presence in this strategic region. The agreement also raised many questions about its main motives and potential repercussions, especially since the Pacific region is seeing large-scale security and military competition between multiple international powers that has made it necessary for many parties to attempt to redraw “areas of influence.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced, during a press conference on April 19, that the foreign ministers of China and the Solomon Islands “officially signed the inter-governmental framework agreement on security cooperation between the two countries.” Although the agreement’s details have not been formally announced, a draft leaked online last month made it clear that it includes measures allowing for Chinese security and military deployment to the islands.
The draft also included a reference to a proposal that “China may – according to its needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands – conduct ship visits, carry out logistical supply operations, stop, and transit in the Solomon Islands.” The draft also gives the Solomon Islands the right to ask Chinese security forces to maintain “social order.” In this context, the main motives for signing this agreement can be addressed as follows:
1. Curtailing domestic movements against China: The signing of the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands comes after demonstrations and protests broke out in many areas of the Solomon Islands in 2021. The country saw an expression of discontent with China’s growing influence, with protests resulting in the vandalism and burning of Chinese-owned companies in the capital Honiara. China appears to have monitored growing rates of resentment of its influence in the islands and aimed, through this agreement, to legitimize possible intervention in the Solomon Islands to contain movements against it.
2. Switching allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing: The Solomon Islands were the largest Pacific islands and countries linked to Taiwan by an alliance and diplomatic relations. The alliance between them dates back to 1983, and was viewed by China as threatening its interests and presence in the Pacific because it contradicts the “One China” principle requiring other countries to avoid official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan if they want to establish full relations with China. But with Chinese pressure and use of economics as a tool, it appears the Solomon Islands government has chosen to switch its diplomatic relations to Beijing, and his heading towards an alliance with it. This is one of the main objectives of the new agreement, and is a trend Taiwan has warned against on multiple occasions. The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a 2019 statement that “the Solomon Islands should not fall into China’s debt trap, and should not switch its alliance from Taipei to Beijing.”
3. Confronting opposing projects in the Pacific: The Chinese agreement with the Solomon Islands cannot be read in isolation from US-led moves to curtail China’s influence in the Pacific region. These moves are mainly based on gathering more allies and establishing regional alliances, such as AUKUS, to counter Chinese influence. It appears that the “broad and ambiguous nature” of the new security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands opens the door for China to use it at all levels, especially in terms of security and the military. Despite Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s statement that there is “no intention whatsoever…to ask China to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands,” China will most likely seek to establish one as part of its increased reliance on the military tool in foreign alliances. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “Despite the Solomon Islands government’s comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC [People’s Republic of China] military forces to the Solomon Islands.”
4. Disrupting Australia’s calculations in the region: According to the draft of the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands circulated by the media, China will have the right to deploy police and naval forces in the islands. This disrupts the calculations of Australia, which with the US is leading moves to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific, and which for years assumed, with New Zealand, the primary responsibility for dealing with unrest in the Solomon Islands and reforming the police force there. Reports have indicated that China has already begun training local forces to combat riots.
5. Supporting China’s island control strategy: The recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, and China’s consequent influence in the islands, is one manifestation of the Chinese strategy to strengthen maritime influence and control over islands in Southeast Asia as an extension of national security. It is a strategy aimed, on one hand, at strengthening China’s naval and military influence and presence, and on the other hand at confronting alliances and movements hostile to China in the region.
6. Economic gains: Economic considerations are a major determinant of China’s step to sign the security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Assessments indicate that the move coincides with Chinese moves to control and benefit from the economic capabilities of the Solomon Islands. This is embodied in China starting to repair the only gold mine in the Solomon Islands in 2019, taking over Taiwan’s funding for “constituency development funds” for members of parliament, and encouraging Chinese companies to invest in the Solomon Islands. Of course, the economic dimension is a major entry point and determinant of Chinese foreign policy in general.
The Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands will have many repercussions, both on the domestic level in the islands and at a wider regional level. The main repercussions are:
1. Escalating protests against Chinese influence: Some assessments go as far as to say that the Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands will push towards creating a state of instability in the islands. This is due to growing discontent and refusal of China’s presence, especially in Malaita province, the regional premier of which, Daniel Suidani, is the most open opponent to Chinese influence. Prime Minister Sogavare has not succeeded in removing him from his post.
2. Increasing international movement against the agreement: The security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands faces significant opposition from many international and regional powers, especially the US and Australia. The US has expressed its concern about the security agreement and authorized a delegation of senior diplomatic and security figures to visit the Solomon Islands, led by the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink. The US State Department also said “the agreement will destabilize the Solomon Islands.” For its part, Australia asked the Solomon Islands last week to review the security agreement and not sign it. These moves reflect that the US, Australia, and the countries allied with them against China will not stand idly by, and will try to exert maximum pressure to curtail China’s movements and influence in the Solomon Islands.
3. Pushing towards more militarization: The agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is likely to lead to more militarization in the Pacific. Western countries will not stand by, and may resort to strengthening their military presence in the region. Some reports indicate that the agreement came as a response from Beijing to the AUKUS alliance launched last year between the US, Australia, and Britain. Furthermore, the US and Western countries are moving to respond to the agreement by way of Taiwan, providing it with more support in order to put pressure on China.
In conclusion, it can be said that the security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China comes within the framework of a broader Chinese approach aimed at winning the loyalty of the Solomon Islands and switching its diplomatic direction from Taiwan to China. Beijing also desires to use this agreement to limit domestic movements hostile to its influence in the Solomon Islands and to confront foreign alliances led by the US and Australia to limit Chinese influence in the Pacific. But the extent of its effectiveness and China’s ability to achieve these goals will depend on the extent to which the Solomon Islands will be flexible in aligning with Beijing’s agenda, as well as the extent of the pressures that will be exerted by international powers opposed to Beijing.