by Eva U Wagner
SOLOMON ISLANDS – Security made in China?
Digital Snapshot #06/22
1 April 2022
A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.
In September 2019, the Solomon Islands decided to discontinue recognition of Taiwan, and to resume diplomatic relations with China. The decision was taken following a review of the country’s foreign policy priorities under the motto ‘friend to all, enemy to none’, and implemented with effect as of 1 October 2019, that is, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (see KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot #15/19 – Wakelet). The Government of the Solomon Islands seems to continue their foreign policy in line with this motto – at least a leaked draft security agreement with China suggests so. The draft was reportedly first disclosed online by an advisor to the Malaita Provincial Government Premier Daniel Suidani, who is critical of his country’s relations with China.
A lot has already been said and written about the draft agreement that need not be repeated here. Instead, KAS Australia would like to compare certain aspects of the draft agreement with corresponding provisions of the Security Agreement entered into between Australia and Solomon Islands, before turning to responses by neighbouring countries.
The draft Framework Agreement Between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation (CN-SI draft agreement)provides for Solomon Islands, according to its own needs, to request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s life and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon. The draft agreement also provides for China, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, to make ship visits to, to carry out logistical replenishment in, and to have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, as well as to use relevant forces to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands (Article 1).
The Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Solomon Islands Concerning the Basis for Deployment of Police, Armed Forces and Other Personnel to Solomon Islands(AU-SI Agreement) provides for Australia, at the written request of the Solomon Islands and subject to Australia’s acceptance …, to deploy a Visiting Contingent and Assets to the Area of Operations to (a) assist in the provision of safety and security of persons and property; (b) provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response in coordination with the National Disaster Council of Solomon Islands (NDC); and/or (c) provide such other assistance as may be mutually determined (Article 2). “Visiting Contingent” means a contingent of personnel comprised of an Assisting Police Force, Assisting Defence Force and/or Other Personnel; “Assets” means vessels, aircraft, vehicles, armoured vehicles, supplies (including medical and pharmaceutical supplies (including blood products)), stores and prescription drugs, working dogs, equipment (including medical equipment), communications, ammunition, weapons, and any other provisions or supplies required by a Visiting Contingent for the purposes of its deployment; “Area of Operations” means the territory of Solomon Islands, all areas where it exercises maritime jurisdiction, and the superjacent airspace (Article 1).
In other words, the main difference between the two agreements appears to be that the CN-SI draft agreement does not only provide for the one-sided provision of assistance but enables China to use Solomon Islands as a basis for maritime activities, provided Solomon Islands consent to it.
The SI-CN draft agreement provides for the “relevant expenses” to be settled through friendly consultation by the Parties (Article 4). The AU-SI Agreement provides for Australia and any Third States involved in the mission to be responsible for the costs arising from a deployment of a Visiting Contingent, except were otherwise provided in the Agreement (Article 17).
Australia’s Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) (2003 until 2017) has cost an estimated A$2.6 billion. This leads to the question as to whether Solomon Islands would be able to pay the bill, if China were to carry out a similar mission and insist on Solomon Islands to pay for it. Would this render Solomon Islands susceptible to coercion? Would Solomon Islands be compelled to use foreign development aid to settle its debts, if any?
There appears to be one language version only of the AU-SI Agreement, whereas the CN-SI draft agreement would be done in the Chinese and English languages, with both texts being equally authentic (Article 7). Whilst this might be standard procedure in bilateral agreements, the inherent differences between the two languages would certainly allow for a range of interpretations.
The AU-SI Agreement remains in force, unless terminated through written notice by one Party to the other Party. The CN-SI draft agreement would be automatically extended for successive periods of five years unless either of the Parties notifies, in written form, the other of the termination six months prior to the expiry date (Article 7).
The draft security agreement has raised alarm bells worldwide and, in particular, in Solomon Islands’ neighbouring countries and the Pacific region. The Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement according to which Australia would be particularly concerned by any actions that would undermine the stability and security of the region, including the establishment of a permanent military base. She announced that in response to a request from the Solomon Islands Government, Australia would extend the Solomons International Assistance Force until December 2023. Further, Australia would build an integrated police, health and disaster management radio network across Solomon Islands, construct a second patrol boat outpost on Solomon Islands’ eastern border, provide A$22 million in budget support to help the Government of Solomon Islands fund salaries for essential workers and mitigate the damaging fiscal impact of the November 2021 civil unrest and COVID economic impacts. The New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta also issued a statement according to which “Solomon Islands’ proposed agreement with China, while within Solomon Islands’ sovereign rights, risks destabilising the current institutions and arrangements that have long ensured the Pacific region’s security. Given this would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbours we will continue to raise our strong condemnation of such agreement directly with the countries involved.” She also said that New Zealand, as part of its ongoing security partnership with Solomon Islands, had agreed to extend the deployment of up to five NZDF personnel and four Policy officers supporting their local counterparts, with the deployment to be reviewed by 31 May. President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) reportedly urged Solomon Islands to reconsider the “unprecedented” security pact with China, saying he feared that the Pacific Islands would be the epicentre of a future confrontation between two major powers. It is worth noting in this context that Micronesia itself is in the process of renewing its Compact of Free Association with the United States, which allows the latter to operate armed forces and military bases in, and to prohibit military access by other countries to, FSM.
Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has fiercly defended the draft agreement, saying it was ‘utter nonsense’ that China’s presence in the region was a threat to regional security. Solomon Islands would welcome any country willing to support his country in the security space. There was no devious intention, nor secret plan – it was a decision by a sovereign nation that had its national interest at heart. The agreement could only be activated by request, they were not pressured in any way and did not intend to ask China to build a military base. Solomon Islands had previously requested Australia to build a naval base, a request which Australia had refused as inappropriate with a view to its defence programme with Papua New Guinea. He had no intention of pitching into any geopolitical struggle; his country would not ‘pick sides’.
As per The Lowy Institute, the draft agreement, if it were to enter into force, would undermine the sentiment reflected in the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, namely that all Pacific countries have a stake in protecting the stability and security of the region, and must address regional security challenges collectively. The Guardian tells us that while the deal had meanwhile been initialled by Chinese and Solomon Islands officials, it was yet to be formally signed. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute concludes that Australia and New Zealand could make Solomon Islands a ‘Pacific Family’ offer that China could not match.
Let’s see if they do.
- Framework Agreement Between The Government of the People’s Republic of China And the Government of Solomon Islands On Security Cooperation (Draft)
2. Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Solomon Islands Concerning the Basis for Deployment of Police, Armed Forces and Other Personnel to Solomon Islands