Ruth Pollard

The West Forgot About the Pacific Islands. China Didn’t

It has been eight decades since the Battle for Guadalcanal was fought between Allied Forces and the Japanese Imperial Army. Today, the Solomon Islands are again at the center of a Pacific power game — one that pits the US and its strategic partners against their latest adversary, China.

News that the People’s Republic and the Solomons had signed a framework agreement on security cooperation was met with significant unease Tuesday in the US, Australia and New Zealand, where officials fear it could pave the way for a Chinese naval base in the Pacific. (The World War II fight over Guadalcanal, the Solomons’ main island, was sparked by Tokyo’s decision in 1942 to move in troops and laborers to construct an airfield, which would have given Japan an advantage in the Pacific theater.)

That Beijing has come out on top of this latest tussle for maritime influence indicates Australia’s 2016 policy of re-engagement with its Pacific neighbors — and a $1.5 billion infrastructure fund established two years later — has been found wanting. Last week’s visit by Pacific Minister Zed Seselja to the Solomons seems to have done little to persuade the government that Canberra was serious about its support. Solomons’ opposition leader told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he had warned Canberra about the pending military deal as early as August last year and got nowhere.

Canberra has long been guilty of treating its island neighbors poorly — using them as expensive prisons for refugees and asylum seekers as part of its deeply criticized offshore detention regime, or neglecting the urgent and impending climate crisis that’s literally lapping at islanders’ doors. In 2015, then-immigration minister and now defense minister Peter Dutton was caught on a hot mic joking about the impact of rising sea levels on island nations. (At the time, he was with Scott Morrison, who’s now prime minister.)

A White House delegation due to arrive in the Solomons in the coming days — led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, in a tour that also includes, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii — also looks like it has come too late. A draft proposal leaked last month indicated China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” with Chinese forces to be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands.”

The US warned the deal would leave the door open for the deployment of People’s Liberation Army troops to the Solomons, which lie about 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) off Australia’s east coast and sit on a key shipping route linking Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the US It sets “a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.

Australia and the US have been scrambling since the news of the security agreement was leaked, notes Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China and the Solomon Islands who is the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program. And they have their work cut out. Many Pacific island nations have expressed concerns that Western countries only pay attention to them when China is a factor, serving as a reminder that last minute interventions are no substitute for long-term and sustained dialogue, Kassam said.

Solomon Islands officially broke ties with Taiwan in 2019. The decision split its political leadership, with the opposition, arguing that relations with Beijing could compromise land rights, rule of law and cultural heritage. Tensions came to a head last November with an outbreak of anti-China violence in the capital, Honiara. Beijing sent police advisers to the archipelago; Australian peacekeepers were also deployed, and they will remain on the ground until December 2023.

For its part, China said Pacific countries should diversify their foreign relations, and criticized the US response to the deal. “Deliberately hyping up tensions and provoking confrontational blocs wins no support and attempts to obstruct cooperation with China is doomed to fail,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday.

Beijing has long been increasing its influence in the Pacific through both formal and informal channels, Hayley Channer, a Canberra-based senior policy fellow at the Perth USAsia Center, tells me. Last year’s riots in the Solomons “opened the door for China to propose a security pact like this — but this agreement goes much further than just protecting Chinese citizens. It would be a way for the PLA to project power closer to Australian shores, which is why Australia and the US are concerned,” Channer says.

Coming just weeks out from Australia’s May 21 federal election, the China deal is a blow to Morrison, whose conservative government is under pressure from the Labor Party. It caps a tumultuous few years for relations between China, on one hand, and Australia and the US, on the other. A trade war that started during the administration of President Donald Trump hit Australia — the most China-dependent economy in the developed world — hard. Canberra’s decision to ban Huawei Technologies Co. from participating in its 5G network and the passage of anti-foreign-interference laws worsened relations.

Canberra shouldn’t get mad, Channer says. It should get even, by convincing Pacific Island countries that what Australia and its allies have to offer — whether that’s defense cooperation, economic aid or critical infrastructure — is more compelling. But first, the allies have to get their act together. Otherwise, Chinese influence will just move from one island in the Pacific to another.