The Solomon Islands and PRC have signed a bilateral security pact. The news of the pact was leaked a month ago and in the last week the governments of both countries have confirmed the deal. However, few details have been released. What we do know is that Chinese police trainers are already working with the Solomons Island police on tactics like crowd control, firearms use, close protection and other operating procedures that have been provided by the Australian and New Zealand police since the end of the RAMSI peace-keeping mission in 2017. More Chinese cops are to come, likely to replace the last remnants of the OZ and NZ police contingents. What is novel is that the agreement allows the PRC to deploy security forces in order to protect Chinese investments and diaspora communities in the event of public unrest. That is understandable because the PRC is the biggest investor in the Solomon Islands (mostly in forestry) and Chinese expats and their properties and businesses have regularly been on the receiving end of mob violence when social and political tensions explode.
Allowing Chinese security forces to protect Chinese economic interests and ex-pats on foreign soil has brought a new twist to the usual security diplomacy boilerplate, one that could be emulated in other Pacific Island states with large Chinese populations. Given the large amounts of PRC economic assistance to Pacific Island states before and during the Belt and Road initiative, which has often been referred to as “dollar,” then “debt” diplomacy because it involves Chinese financing and/or the gifting of large developmental projects to island states in which imported Chinese labor is used and where it is suspected that PRC money was passed to local officials in order to grease the way for contracts to be let, the possibility of this new type of security agreement is now firmly on the diplomatic table.
Also very worth noting is that the SI-PRC agreement gives the Chinese Navy (PLAN) berthing and logistical support rights during port visits, with the Chinese ugrading the port of Honiara in order to accommodate the deep draft grey hulls that it will be sending that way. This has raised fears in Western security circles that the current deal is a precursor to a forward basing agreement like the one the PRC has with Djibouti, with PLA troops and PLAN vessels permanently stationed on a rotating basis on Solomon Islands soil. Given that the Solomon Islands sit astride important sea lanes connecting Australia (and New Zealand) with the Northwestern Pacific Rim as well as waters further East, this is seen as a move that will upset the strategic balance in the Southwest Pacific to the detriment of the Western-dominant status quo that currently exists.
The fear extends to concerns about the PRC inking similar agreements with Fiji (with whom its already has a port visit agreement), Samoa and Tonga. The PRC has invested heavily in all three countries and maintains signals collection facilities at its embassies in Suva and Nuku’alofa. A forward basing agreement with any of them would allow the PLAN to straddle the sea lanes between the Coral Sea and larger Pacific, effectively creating a maritime chokepoint for commercial and naval shipping.
Needless to say, the reaction in Australia, NZ and the US has been predictably negative and sometimes borderline hysterical. For example, recent reports out of Australia claim that Chinese troops could be on the ground in the Solomons within a month. If true and if some Australian/NZ commentators are correct in their assessments, the only implicit options left to reverse the PRC-Solomons security agreement in the diminishing time window before the PRC establishes a firm foothold in Honiara is either by fomenting a coup or by direct military intervention. Opposition (and pro-Taiwan) Malaitan militias might be recruited for either venture (the Solomons switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019, something that was widely opposed on the island of Malaita). However, PM Sogavare already has PRC police in country and can invoke the new deal to get rapid response PRC units on the ground to quash an uprising or resist foreign military intervention. So the scene is set for a return to the nation-wide violence of two decades ago, but in which contending foreign intervention forces are joined to inter-tribal violence.
The agreement is also a test of NZ and OZ commitments to the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination. Left-leaning pundits see the deal as benign and Western concerns as patronizing, racist and evidence of a post-colonial mentality. Right-leaning mouthpieces see it as the first PRC toe- hold on its way to regional strategic domination (hence the need for pre-emptive action). Both the New Zealand and Australian governments have expressed concerns about the pact but stopped short of threatening coercive diplomacy to get Sogavare to reverse course and rescind the deal. Australia has sent its Minister for Pacific affairs to Honiara to express its concern and the US has sent a fairly high (Assistant Secretary) level delegation to reaffirm its commitment to regional peace and stability. NZ has refrained from sending a crisis diplomatic delegation to Honiara, perhaps because the Prime Minister is on an Asian junket in which the positives of newly signed made and cultural exchanges are being touted and negative developments are being downplayed. But having been involved with such contingency-planning matters in my past, intelligence and military agencies are well into gaming any number of short to medium term scenarios including those involving force, and their contingency planning scenarios may not be driven by respect for norms and principles involving Solomon Islands sovereignty, self-determination and foreign policy independence.
Conspicuous by their absence have been the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). The former is the regional diplomatic grouping founded in 1971 and Headquartered in Suva, Fiji. It is comparable to the Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of African Unity (OAU) or Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). It has several security clauses in its charter, including that 2000 Biketawa Declaration that sets the framework for regional crisis management and conflict resolution and which was invoked to authorise the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003-2017.
The latter was formally incorporated in 1988 (Fiji was admitted in 1996) as a Melanesian anti-colonial solidarity organization and trade and cultural facilitator involving PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Kanak National Liberation Front (FLINKS) in New Caledonia. It subsequently admitted observer missions from Indonesia (now Associate Member), Timor Leste and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua.
Currently headquartered in Port Villa, Vanuatu, under Fiji’s leadership in the late 2000s it attempted to re-position itself as a regional security intervention body for Melanesia, (prompted by the unrest in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea in the early 2000s). That initiative never prospered and the MSG remains as more of a symbolic grouping than one with serious diplomatic weight in spite of the signing of an MSG regional trade agreement in 1996 (revised in 2005) and Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama’s attempts to make it a vehicle for loftier ambitions.
Neither agency has weighed in at any significant length on the agreement or the response from the traditional Western patrons. That may have something to do with the PRC’s dollar diplomacy shifting regional perspectives on diplomacy and security, or perhaps has to do with long-standing unhappiness with the approaches of “traditional” Western patrons when it comes to broader issues of development and trade (since the PC-SI security deal also includes clauses about “humanitarian” and developmental assistance). The MSG silence is significant because it has the potential to serve as a regional peace-keeping force deployed mainly to deal with ethnic and tribal unrest in member states as well as inter-state conflict, thereby precluding the need for non-Melanesian powers to get involved in domestic or regional security matters. Either way, the absence of the Solomon Island’s closets neighbours in a glaring omission from diplomatic discussions about how to respond to the agreement.
That is a good reason for the PIF and MSG to be engaged in resolving the inevitable disputes that will arise amid the fallout from the PRC-SI security agreement. It could involve setting boundaries for foreign military operations (such as limiting foreign military presences to anti-poaching, anti-smuggling or anti-piracy missions) or limits to foreign military basing and fleet numbers. It could involve negotiating MSG control over domestic public order measures and operations in the event of internal unrest, including those involving the PRC and Western traditional patrons. The main point is that regional organizations take the lead in administering regional security affairs covering the nature and limits of bilateral relations between member states and extra-regional powers (including traditional patrons as well as newer aspirants).
Whatever happens, it might be best to wait until the agreement details are released (and it remains to be seen if they will be) and save the sabre rattling for then should the worst (Western) fears are realized. That sabre rattling scenario includes a refusal to release the full details of the pact or dishonesty in presenting its clauses (especially given PRC track record of misrepresentations regarding its ambitions in the South China Sea and the nature of the island-building projects on reefs claimed by other littoral states bordering it). Of course, if the agreement details are withheld or misrepresented or the PRC makes a pre-emptive move of forces anticipating the OZ/NZ coercive response, then all bets are off as to how things will resolve. The window of diplomatic opportunity to strike an equitable resolution to the issue is therefore short and the possibility of negative consequences in the event that it is not loom large over the Pacific community and beyond.
In other words, it is time for some hard-nosed geopolitical realist cards to be placed on the diplomatic table involving interlocutors big and small, regional and extra-regional, without post-colonial patronizing, anti-imperialist “whataboutism” or yellow fever-style fear-mongering. Because a new strategic balance is clearly in the making, and the only question remaining is whether it will be drafted by lead or on paper.