Is China’s deal with the Solomon Islands another sign that it is growing more influential in the South Pacific?
The bilateral security cooperation agreement signed in April reflects Beijing’s longtime engagement with and growing influence in the South Pacific. Since President Xi Jinping took office, the Chinese government has twice elevated China’s diplomatic partnership with the region. Eight countries in the region are China’s comprehensive strategic partners, the highest classification of diplomatic partnership in China’s foreign relations. Top Chinese officials have frequently visited the region, with Xi attending summits there in 2014 and 2018.
The draft agreement between China and the Solomon Islands focuses on boosting the latter’s national security capacity. It also includes cooperation on humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and efforts to maintain social order, among other areas. A clause in the agreement says that China can “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” as well as send Chinese forces to the country to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.” This has stoked concerns in the United States and its allies in the region that China could send troops to the Solomon Islands and establish a permanent military base there, less than two thousand kilometers from Australia.
China has been engaging with the South Pacific for more than three decades through regional forums, such as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum (EDCF). The Chinese government provides approximately $1 million annually to the EDCF secretariat. In 2020, China established a $1.9 million fund to support the region’s COVID-19 response. Last year, China and Pacific Island countries held the inaugural foreign ministers’ meeting and vowed to boost cooperation in areas including poverty reduction and climate change. China’s growing presence is also demonstrated by its substantial aid; over the past decade, China was the second-largest donor in the Pacific, after Australia.
What are China’s interests in the region?
The Chinese government views the Pacific Island region as an important component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Specifically, it sees the region as a critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road, which connects Asia with Central and South America. By 2021, China had signed BRI cooperation documents with all ten Pacific Island countries with which it has established diplomatic relations.
China’s direct investment in Pacific Island countries rose from $900 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion in 2018, a 400 percent increase. Chinese companies invested more than $2 billion in Pacific mining over the past two decades. Additionally, China has expressed strong interests in the regions’ fisheries, aquaculture, harbor construction, and other related areas. From 2010 to 2020, total trade in fishery products between China and the Pacific Islands increased from $35 million to $112 million. By the end of that period, eleven Chinese enterprises had invested in the fisheries industry across six Pacific Island countries.
For decades, the region has been at the center of a diplomatic contest over Taiwan. Only four Pacific Island countries maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan: the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati were the latest to switch their ties from Taipei to Beijing, in 2019. In the case of the Solomon Islands, Beijing promised about $730 million in financial aid. The move triggered violent anti-government unrest in the Solomon Islands that killed four people and prompted China to offer anti-riot gear and send a team of six police liaison officers to equip and train Solomon Islands police.
The China-Solomon Islands security pact is likely driven by the Chinese government’s sense of vulnerability in the region rather than by a Chinese grand strategy. Civil unrest targeting China-funded projects in other countries, combined with China’s deteriorating relations with the United States and U.S. allies in the region, is likely to have motivated Chinese policymakers to seek means to protect Beijing’s overseas interests.
What are the risks for the United States and its allies? How should the United States respond?
The South Pacific has been perceived as part of an “American lake,” as declared by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. The United States’ expressed commercial and security interests in the region can be traced back as early as 1825. Today, the United States has a strong military presence in the region through the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, with about 375,000 military and civilian personnel, 2,460 aircraft, and 200 naval vessels, including five aircraft carrier strike groups. Under the Joe Biden administration, the Pentagon has prioritized building up U.S. military bases in Guam and Australia to offset China’s influence. Meanwhile, Palau has offered to host U.S. bases on its territory.
The Solomon Islands are strategically located in the Pacific, and the United States and its regional allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, are concerned that the China-Solomon Islands security pact allows Chinese naval vessels to replenish there. That could open the door to a Chinese naval base, which would significantly extend China’s military reach in the South Pacific. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has said he has no intention of allowing a Chinese military base, and a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense said reports of a naval base are false.
The United States and its allies should balance the rhetoric about the new security pact and its potential threat to U.S. interests with a strategy for renewed engagement in the region. The United States closed its embassy in the Solomon Islands in 1993—one example of its neglect of the region in recent decades—whereas China has increased its influence. Plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands and invite Pacific leaders to Washington are a good start but not enough. The United States should also coordinate with its regional allies, partners, and the private sector to reestablish a credible presence in the region and provide alternatives to China’s financial resources.