International Opinion

Solomon Islands agreement puts Australia in crosshairs of U.S. and China

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meet at the recent Quad meeting (image via YouTube)

The recent China-Solomon deal has sent waves of discomfort through the U.S. and its allies, particularly Australia.

Security concerns have been felt in Canberra to Washington. As China allegedly seeks to develop a military base in the Solomon Islands and increases its sphere of influence, the power dimensions in the region may change. That makes the – yet unrevealed – agreement a matter of curiosity and serious concern for Australia and its allies.

The Solomon Islands is a country of scattered islands with a population of almost 700,000 people. Australia has been taking part in its security matters, as it has suffered from a number of internal problems. Now, the agreement lets China take part in the security and “maintaining social order” in the Solomon Islands which would appear to allow China to play an assertive role in the region.

The Prime Minister of Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogavare was elected for the fourth time in 2019 amid protests that were de-escalated by the use of force. Some of those protests occurred in the capital’s Chinatown. It was probably an astute move for Sogavare to forge stronger relations with China: to control domestic disruption, strengthen his regime and gain investments in the country.

For China, it’s a massive victory to gain a durable presence in the region. The U.S. and the allies are concerned over the Chinese naval presence in the strategically important waters of the Asia Pacific.

Australia now finds itself in a difficult position. Within the country, it was a heated political issue for the upcoming 21 May Federal Election. Labor Leader Anthony Albanese called the security pact a massive foreign policy failure.

Ousted Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged not to allow China to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands and has called it “crossing the red line” if China goes forward to executing the plans.

He added

“Australia would work with partners to ensure that that type of an outcome would be prevented.”

In the Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Sogavare is trying to defend the security pact between his Government and China. While speaking in the Parliament, he argued that the “internal security situation” required such a bilateral agreement.

The leaked draft of the agreement indicates that the armed Chinese police can be deployed to maintain the social order in the Solomon Islands on request. The pact would also help strengthen Sogavare’s Government as it plans to delay its elections: China could back him if protests broke out.

Sogavare has been, at least publicly, adamant that there are no intentions of giving China space for military bases. Beijing also characterised the agreement as a form of "normal cooperation" between two sovereign and independent countries. It also accuses the West to be deliberately exaggerating tensions over the agreement. If everyone is sharing the table of "no military bases" in the Solomon Islands, why is there so much controversy?

That leads to the water wars. Australia, the UK and the US formed a trilateral defence agreement, AUKUS, last year which was aimed at containing China. Under the pact, Australia will get nuclear-powered submarines which could travel far ahead and with a much faster speed.

These submarines can go to the strategically important waters including those on which China lays territorial claims such as areas surrounding Taiwan. Australia has thus been a key ally of the U.S. in the 21st Century rivalry between the U.S. and China.

China’s rapid growth enables it to be assertive on a global level, especially since it began the ambitious Belt and Road initiative. It has been making investments in developing countries and the Solomon Islands is one of those countries.

Meanwhile, the Solomon Islands also recognised mainland China and had cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2020.

Now, the Solomon Islands seem to offer China a foothold to maintain an armed presence in the Asia Pacific, a key battleground in the "new Cold War". Miscalculations are the tragedy of superpower conflicts. Australia, being the partner of the U.S. in the region, can improve their foreign policy by developing better relations with China instead of relying solely on U.S. support.

The "new Cold War", if things keep spiralling, will not be in the Americas but in the Asia Pacific and  Australia should develop a realist foreign policy.

Australia must be agile in building a foreign policy that can balance its relations with both the U.S. and China. Being hostile to China will be of benefit to the U.S. as the world becomes more polarised, but it may not be to the benefit of states whose geography makes them prisoners of a new geopolitical conflict.

Muhammad Abdul Basit is a political scientist and a freelance columnist. He writes on international relations and sociopolitical issues.

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