WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – A security alliance between China and the Solomon Islands has shaken the South Pacific, with many worried that it could trigger a massive military build-up or that Western hostility to the agreement could play into China’s hands. .
What is still most unclear is the extent of China’s ambitions.
The presence of Chinese troops in the Solomon Mountains would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand but also in close proximity to Guam, with large-scale US military bases.
China still has only one recognized foreign military base, in the poor but militarily important corner of the African nation of Djibouti. Many people believe that the Chinese Liberation Army is busy establishing a foreign network, even if they do not use the term “base”.
The Solomon Islands Government has drafted its agreement with China was initialed last week and will be “cleaned up” and signed soon.
The draft, which was leaked online, states that Chinese warships could stop in the Solomon Mountains to “complete transportation” and that China could send police, troops and other forces to the Solomon Islands “to help maintain social order.
The draft agreement states that China will have to agree on what information is published on common security measures, including at media briefings.
The Solomon Islands, home to some 700,000 people, exchanged diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 – a move that the most populous province rejected and took part in last November’s riots.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded in February by saying that Washington would reopen its embassy. in the capital, Honiara, which has been closed since 1993, to increase its influence in the Solomon Mountains before China becomes “strongly populated”.
Both China and Solomon have vehemently denied that the new treaty will lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base.. The Solomon Islands government said the treaty was necessary because of its limited ability to deal with violent uprisings such as the one in November.
“The country has been devastated by repeated internal violence for many years,” the government said this week.
But Australia, New Zealand and the United States have all expressed concern over the agreement, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing it as a “serious concern”.
David Panuelo, the president of nearby Micronesia, who has close ties with the United States, wrote a passionate letter to Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, asking him to reconsider the agreement.
He pointed out that both Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlefields in World War II, engulfed in superpower conflicts.
“I am confident that neither of us wants to see a conflict of that magnitude or magnitude again, and especially in our own backyard,” Panuelo wrote.
But the Solomon Islands police minister mocked Panuelo’s concerns on social media, saying he should be more concerned about the sea swallowing his own atoll due to climate change.
Sogavare has also rejected foreign criticism of the security agreement as an insult, but branded those who leaked the draft as “crazy”.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the agreement was aimed at maintaining the security of people’s lives and property and “has no military implications,” saying media speculation about a possible military base was unfounded.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Singapore, said China had been pursuing such a port facility for about five years as it aimed to increase its naval presence in the South Pacific as part of Beijing’s longevity. . seeks to become a dominant regional authority.
“If they want to break out into the Pacific, they will one day need the transport capacity to support their presence,” Graham said. “We are not talking about war plans here; it’s really about increasing their presence and influence. “
Unlike the military base built in Djibouti, where China has trade interests in the region, Graham said all operations in the Solomon Islands would probably be less extensive.
“This is a rather subtle and interesting land-political game that has taken place in the South Pacific,” he added. “And I think the Chinese have been very successful, if you will, in overcoming the United States and Australia in an influential competition, not a military competition.
China’s base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. China does not call it a base but rather a support facility for its navy to defend against the pirates in the Gulf of Aden and for peacekeeping in Africa. It boasts a 400-meter (1,300-foot) runway and a dock large enough to dock either of China’s two operating aircraft carriers.
The 2,000-strong military base enables China to locate supplies, troops and equipment in a strategically important area, while keeping an eye on US forces stationed nearby.
The leader among other potential base candidates is Cambodia, whose wealth leader Hun Sen has long been a staunch Chinese ally and reportedly signed a secret agreement in 2019 authorizing the establishment of a Chinese military base.
China is deepening its port at the Ream naval base to allow ships larger than any of Cambodia to dock and is building new infrastructure to replace the US naval headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia would set up a suffocation station in the Gulf of Thailand near the important Malacca Strait.
China has also funded projects in Gwadar, Pakistan, another close ally, and in Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure loans have forced the government to transfer control of the port of Hambantota in the south of the country.
The Chinese offensive to establish a base in Equatorial Guinea’s West African country has been particularly intriguing. It would provide China with a presence in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the mainland United States as well as in a major oil-producing region in Africa.
“China has taken the opportunity to increase its influence at a time when the United States and other countries have not been as economically preoccupied with the Pacific Islands,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, a Chinese foreign policy expert at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
About 80 years ago in the Solomon Islands, the US military launched its famous “island hopping” campaign in World War II to retake the Pacific Islands from the Japanese imperial army one by one. It successfully conquered the main island of Guadalcanal in February 1943 after about six months of fierce fighting.
Today, the Solomon Islands would give China the potential to disrupt US naval operations in the region, which could be crucial in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or the South and East China Seas.
General Greg Bilton, head of Australia’s joint operations, said that if Chinese naval vessels could conquer the Solomon Islands, it would “change the calculation”.
“Obviously they are much closer to mainland Australia, and that would change the way we deal with our day-to-day operations, especially by air and sea,” he told reporters.
But Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islander Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said leaders had reacted too much to the agreement, perhaps in Australia’s case because of an impending election.
“This is clearly making everyone in the West very lively and very upset,” said Pryke. “But I don’t think it will change things significantly on the ground.
He said the treaty could be seen as the first step towards China establishing a military base, but there would have to be many more steps before that could happen.
“I think the warning strengthened China’s hand by pushing the Solomon Islands into a corner,” Pryke said. “And they have responded as I imagine many countries would respond to this external pressure – by pushing back and digging in their heels.
Rising reported from Bangkok.