The Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 1,400 miles northeast of Australia with a population of 687,000, is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the site of a major naval campaign during World War II. This week, the island nation sent political shock waves through Washington and Canberra with the announcement that it had signed a security pact with China. It’s the first known bilateral security agreement between China and a country in the Pacific. And it may have military implications for the region.
According to a leaked draft of the agreement, it would allow Chinese warships to dock on the islands, and China could “assist in maintaining social order.” The deal has not been officially published, but a Chinese government spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday that the “social order” clause was in the final version.
The Solomon Islands have been drifting into Beijing’s orbit for some time. In 2019, the islands broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with the People’s Republic of China. (Only 14 countries still maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan — many of them island states in the Pacific and Caribbean, and Beijing has been chipping away at the number with a diplomatic and economic offensive.) The warming relations with China have been highly contentious in the Solomons, sparking violent protests last year that targeted both the government and the Chinatown neighborhood in the capital. The unrest prompted Australia to send in troops to restore order.
The U.S., which hasn’t even had an embassy in the Solomons for nearly 30 years but is now planning to open one, dispatched a high-level delegation to the islands this week, including White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, for talks about the pact. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, which lobbied against the deal, is coming under heavy criticism, with the opposition Australian Labor Party calling it the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in 80 years.
To make sense of why this deal is so significant and what it means for the region going forward, Grid spoke with Bonnie Glaser, a leading China expert and director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Why do you think the announcement of this agreement has sparked such alarm in both the U.S. and Australia?
Bonnie Glaser: First, because China has been seeking port access. There is evidence that they have wanted to establish a military facility in the Pacific for some time and that they’ve approached different governments. China has been increasing its economic presence in the region and there is, I think, valid reason to be suspicious that China might seek to use its economic presence in order to create the opportunity for a more permanent military presence.
And so, I think, Australia and the U.S. have been alert to this possibility because they view the region as very strategic.
G: What makes the Solomons so strategically important? Is it just the location?
BG: It is the location. It is really quite close to Australia. It comprises about 900 islands that are situated across shipping lanes that connect the U.S. to the broader region. Historically, it was considered to be strategically important for Japan. For example, during World War II, the U.S. had to dislodge its forces there in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
But the concerns are really global. There is a sense that China is spreading its wings. You may recall about maybe four or five months ago, there was a report about China possibly investing in what could become a military facility in Equatorial Guinea. There’s been reports about China establishing a possible base in Cambodia.
G: So now we are seeing Kurt Campbell and other senior officials traveling to the Solomons, but is this kind of too little too late? The country has been deepening its ties with China for years now. Did the U.S. drop the ball?
BG: I think so, absolutely. The U.S. has outsourced the handling of the Pacific to Australia. Australia is obviously much closer. It has had long relations with the region — similarly checkered relations but some positive. And I think the fact that the U.S. has not had a focused policy that sustains attention to the region is part of the problem.
G: Given the location, Australia is the other big player in this story. How has its relationship with China shifted in recent years?
BG: Australia’s relations with China have undergone a sea change in recent years. I think one of the major turning points was [in 2020] when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of covid-19. The relationship had already been deteriorating before that, but that’s when it really went into a free fall.
I think the Chinese viewed that as a threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and started taking trade coercive measures against Australia’s exports to China. And China presented a list of 14 demands to the Australian government to things that they would have to do in order to improve the relationship, which basically boiled down to “you will never do anything that damages China’s interests again, and you will apologize for everything you have done, and you will even change your political system if necessary to ensure that your media is not criticizing China.” Truly outrageous demands. And the relationship has never recovered, particularly as the U.S.-Australia relationship has deepened.
G: So, what’s China’s long-term strategy here? Are we going to see more deals like this?
BG: Again, I think you can see this model developing in various places all over the world. The only place where China really has a dedicated military base right now is in Djibouti, but there are approximately 95 ports that China has invested in around the world. And they could be used for commercial purposes or dual-use purposes, and some of them may actually end up being military bases.
And so, I think the trend is that China is interested in extending its influence over strategic nodes, places that are geographically significant that could support the [People’s Liberation Army] as it becomes more expeditionary. If you look at a map, you can see why they’re interested in Cambodia, and you can certainly understand why they might be interested in the Indo-Pacific.
This is not the first sign of their interest for a military base in the Pacific, but it is the first example of really substantial progress. You know, you can look at the actual agreement between the Solomons and China, and you won’t see the term “military base,” but you can see a lot of language to open the door to China having a greater military presence there.
G: Given the blowback this is causing with the U.S. and other countries, why do you think it’s worth it for the Solomons to ink this deal? What are they getting out of it?
BG: It has to do with propping up support for the government in the Solomons. I’m not deeply familiar with the politics of the Solomons, but there is certainly opposition in the parliament there, just as we’ve seen disagreement in other countries. There have been some Chinese government pledges to invest in the Solomons. There was a rumor that it could be as much as half a billion dollars. And that was back when there was discussion about changing the recognition to Beijing from Taipei, which eventually they did. And none of those infrastructure projects that were rumored have even begun. We have seen, apparently, a commitment to build a sports stadium, which I understand is being built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise using Chinese nationals for labor. It isn’t contributing to the sustained development of the Solomons.
And again, this is often a practice that we have seen in other countries where perhaps Chinese economic investment is helping Chinese labor and Chinese companies and bolstering the political position of an individual leader, but it isn’t trickling down to or in any way contributing to the overall economy of the country.
G: You mentioned Taipei. Could this have implications for Taiwan’s security?
BG: Well, the bigger implications for Taiwan were when the diplomatic recognition switched to China. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a single case in the recent past where a country has switched back to Taiwan.
In terms of this deal, the implications for Taiwan are potentially positive. They’re trying to spotlight on some of the things that the Chinese are doing, and maybe this is a wake-up call for the few countries in the Pacific where Taiwan still retains diplomatic ties. It could bring attention in the region to maybe some of the potential downsides of China having too much of a presence in your country. That might end up helping Taiwan down the road to keep those few diplomatic allies that it still has in the region. But that’s a question mark.
G: The U.S. now seems intent on repairing its relations with the Solomons. Are there things the U.S. could be doing differently, not just there, but in other sort of “tipping point” countries so that it isn’t caught flat-footed like this again?
BG: There are several things that the U.S. can do. One is to offer some protection to help the Solomons deal with illegal fishing. So we could help provide maybe Coast Guard vessels to help them to monitor what’s going on inside their very, very large, exclusive economic zone. Chinese fishing boats are engaged in a lot of the illegal fishing. We’ve already made some contributions to a project there that’s called SCALE — Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods, and Environment — and that’s part of a larger $200 million pledge to the Pacific.
Basically, the Solomons need investment in infrastructure. The reason why the Chinese got in bed successfully with the Solomons to begin was because they offered to provide them infrastructure. Instead, they’re providing a stadium. We should be the ones to come in and help to provide infrastructure, obviously not just ourselves, but with Japan, with Australia, maybe even with the Europeans. The Europeans have “Global Gateway.” We have “Build Back Better World.” We all have lots of bumper stickers, but we have to actually be using the resources of these programs in a targeted way to compete more effectively with China. And this is, I think, a great example of where and how we can do so.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.