Australia anxious to show it didn’t ‘drop the ball’ on Pacific after China and Solomon Islands deal


As China makes progress on a security deal with Solomon Islands, the Australian government is anxious not to be seen to have “dropped the ball” in the Pacific region. That would be a tad embarrassing, given it has spent the past few years sounding the alarm about security threats from China while also trumpeting its own “Pacific Step-Up”.

The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, has been one of the ministers on the defensive after leaked documents revealed the draft agreement between China and the Pacific island nation.

“Look, I think it would be highly naive to think that the Australian government is not completely all over this issue,” the deputy prime minister told reporters in Canberra.

“The prime minister, the national security committee – they’re not fools.”

But even though there was a general understanding of Beijing’s interest in deeper ties with Solomon Islands, it is increasingly clear the leaked agreement – spelling out a system for the Pacific country to request assistance from Chinese police, armed police, military personnel and other armed forces – took Canberra by surprise.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said as much when she was asked to reveal when she first became aware of the proposed deal.

“In relation to this framework agreement, when it became public – I think it was a social media post on 24 March,” Payne told a Senate estimates hearing on Friday.

What about when Australia first became aware of the prospect of an agreement? “When this was a public document,” Payne answered.

One of the reasons defence planners in Canberra would have been seriously alarmed by the draft agreement is because it appeared quite broadly worded, and could conceivably be a stepping stone to a future Chinese naval base less than 2,000km from Australia’s east coast.

In the short term, such a presence could fuel geopolitical tensions and instability in the Pacific. In the longer term, Australian strategists would have to factor in the risk of disruptions to supply lanes between the US and Australia in a future crisis.

Lt Gen Greg Bilton, the chief of joint operations for the Australian defence force, told reporters it “does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from Solomon Islands”, adding that it “would change the way that we would undertake day‑to‑day operations particularly in the air and at sea”.

According to the draft text, the agreement would give China an avenue to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.

Since the document leaked, Solomon Islands has insisted it has no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base, and has said the final version may be worded differently. But the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has signalled his determination to press ahead, saying the agreement is merely an extension of its “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy.

Diplomacy challenge

The specific draft document came as a shock, but it wasn’t a bolt from the blue. Australia and New Zealand were aware of China’s interest in closer police cooperation with Solomon Islands (“the direction of travel”, as Jacinda Ardern called it last week). There has been awareness for months about the prospect of China providing police-to-police training in the country. Last month concerns were raised about secrecy surrounding a shipment from China of items that Solomon Islands police described as replica firearms for police training.

Ewen McDonald, the head of the Office of the Pacific at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, adopted Joyce’s remarks at Senate estimates on Friday. McDonald – who visited Honiara in January and February – assured senators Australia had been “all over this issue of security” and the desire for China “to enter that sector” since at least 2019. That was when Solomon Islands ended ties with Taiwan and switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

The latest developments present a substantial challenge for Australian diplomacy, and for security planning.

The Australian government is well aware of the need to avoid any perception it is bullying or lecturing to Solomon Islands. The Australian government’s policy in the Indo-Pacific for years has focused on promoting a region “of independent, sovereign and resilient states”. Read that as: every country, regardless of size, is able to make its own decisions free of coercion.

As Richard Maude, former head of the Office of National Assessments and an experienced foreign affairs official, explains, the Australian government should raise its concerns quietly because “any perception that we’re leaning on the Solomon Islands government would be counterproductive”.

Sogavare rebuffed foreign criticism of the security negotiations with Beijing in a speech to his country’s parliament on Tuesday, declaring: “We find it very insulting, Mr Speaker, to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs.” China’s foreign ministry also warned other countries against telling Solomon Islands what to do “in a condescending manner”.

But the agreement is also contentious within the domestic politics of Solomon Islands. Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, argued it “would make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field” and “further threaten the nation’s fragile unity”. In an op-ed for the Guardian, Wale wrote: “The Solomons’ relationships with its regional partners are not perfect. The US, Australia and New Zealand have, to varying degrees, been neglectful in the region over the past decade – particularly regarding the existential threat posed by climate change. But the proposed security deal with China is not the solution.”

A regional security issue

The Australian government appears to be attempting to avoid inflaming the situation with excessive public commentary. Even the defence minister, Peter Dutton, who is not generally known for nuance when it comes to China-related issues, has been cautious.

“They’re a sovereign nation and they have the ability to make decisions for themselves and we fully respect that and they’ll do what they believe is in their country’s best interest,” Dutton told ABC Radio National on Friday.

Indeed, the Australian government’s strategy appears to be largely focused on ensuring that the concerns about the deal are not primarily seen as a just bilateral issue between Australia and Solomon Islands. Instead, it is emphasising the broader implications for regional security. Morrison had calls with his counterparts from Papua New Guinea and Fiji last Monday.

Similarly, David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, which is close to the US, wrote to Sogavare on Wednesday to express concern that the “novel and unprecedented” security agreement “would absolutely affect all countries who call the Blue Pacific their home”. Panuelo appealed to Sogavare: “If any part of what I have written has given you pause, however briefly, then please feel empowered to reach out to me, and to the Pacific Islands Forum at large.”

A second element of the Australian government’s strategy seems to be to cast doubt on China’s long-term intentions and the reliability of any pledges it makes. Dutton has pointed to the assurances China’s president, Xi Jinping, gave to then US president Barack Obama in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2015 that “China does not intend to pursue militarisation” in the South China Sea. Dutton said China now had 20 points of military presence in the South China Sea, and its record showed it was “very hard” to take Beijing’s promises “at face value”.

A third element of Australia’s approach is to emphasise its own ongoing commitment to assisting Solomon Islands. There are currently about 60 Australian federal police and defence force personnel in Solomon Islands, after unrest in November last year, and that mission has been extended to next year. Australia’s official development assistance (ODA) to Solomon Islands appeared to decline from 12.6% from $179m in 2014-15 to $156m in the 2021-22 budget, but there are additional targeted programs, including Covid-related support. Last week’s budget showed the country would gain $161.1m in ODA in 2022-23.

Payne said Australia was Solomon Islands’ largest development partner “by a long way”, providing about two-thirds of all assistance, and added that it stood ready to act on any other requests. “There is not one single event or ask that Australia has not been prepared to meet, in my experience,” she said of crisis and disaster response.

In other words, we’re here to help; no need to reach beyond the immediate region for assistance. The Australian government will be hoping that message resonates when it comes time for Solomon Islands to make its sovereign decision.