Beijing-Solomons Deal: A Threat to Australian Sovereignty

March 28, 2022 Updated: March 29, 2022

Commentary

On March 24, a leaked draft agreement between the Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China on security cooperation sent shockwaves through the Australian political and security establishments.

Article 1 of the Agreement stipulates that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.”

The disclosure of the existence of a secret security agreement between the two nations has spawned a variety of comments, which are either provocative or conciliatory. For example, David Llewellyn-Smith, former owner of The Diplomat, a prominent Asia Pacific foreign affairs journal, has argued that the proposed security agreement presents Australia with its own “Cuban missile crisis.”

Specifically, he contends that the establishment of a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands would be “the effective end of our sovereignty and democracy” and that Australia has no choice but to “invade and capture Guadalcanal such that we engineer regime change in Honiara.”

In contrast, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, in a statement released on March 25, strikes a more conciliatory note when she commented that the Australian government has “regularly and respectfully raised our concerns with the Solomon Islands Government and will continue to do so” and that Australia “would be particularly concerned by any actions that undermine the stability and security of our region, including the establishment of a permanent presence such as a military base.”

Although both viewpoints confirm the strategic importance of the Solomon Islands to Australia, it is difficult to reconcile them. Hence, it is appropriate to consider whether the agreement between the Solomon Islands and China threatens Australia’s sovereignty; by considering the background of this matter and its context, it might be possible to secure a better understanding of this issue.

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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare speaks during a panel discussion at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 14, 2017. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

When the present Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, came to power on April 24, 2019, he severed the Islands’ diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 (followed by Kiribati four days later). The Solomon Islands then recognised China as its legitimate diplomatic partner.

In 2020, China sent 14 grievances to Australia that, according to Beijing, poison the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The list of grievances includes Australia’s banning of Huawei from its 5G network and its insistence to convene an international commission to consider the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

Beijing also complained about the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (FITS), which was meant to expose dangerous foreign influences well-known to our security agencies.

In 2018, the then federal Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that this new Act would “safeguard the nation’s democracy.”

“FITS will provide visibility of the forms and sources of foreign influence in Australia’s governmental and political processes,” he said. This law was therefore supposed to protect Australia from foreign undemocratic regimes, such as China, attempting to influence Australian citizens.

In getting a foothold in the Pacific, China would make it easier to isolate Taiwan. Thus, the draft agreement, if it were to result in the establishment of a military base, could significantly serve the geopolitical interests of Beijing.

The agreement would also effectively weaponise the list of 14 grievances because, in a military conflict, China would be able to strike Australia, especially if a military base on the Solomon Islands were to have cruise missile boats and hypersonic missiles that could reach Brisbane in less than 15 minutes.

Of course, the Solomon Islands is an independent nation, and, as such, it enjoys the benefits of sovereignty and the concomitant right to make its own decisions.

In fact, the Solomon Islands also has a current operational security agreement with Australia, signed in August 2017. The agreement enables Australia “to deploy rapidly and effectively in an operational capacity in the event of a major security challenge or event, including humanitarian response situations.”

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Anti-government messages adorn a burnt-out building in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Nov. 27, 2021, (Charley Piringi/AFP via Getty Images)

The comment in the agreement that the Pacific Region is “of great importance to Australia” and that the “stability of Solomon Islands has a major impact on the security of Australia and the broader region” underscores the importance of the Islands’ security to Australia.

Australia has always assumed the role of the police officer in the Solomons Islands, most recently in November 2020, when protestors tried to storm the parliament and set fire to Honiara’s Chinatown in a three-day rampage.

The riots were, at least partially, a response to the decision of the Sogavare government to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to switch its allegiance to Beijing.

Australia deployed 200 peacekeepers to restore order, which helped the prime minister of the Islands to retain power. At present, there is still 50 Australian personnel serving in the Islands until the end of 2023.

Following international criticism of the agreement with China, the Solomon Islands described its foreign policy strategy as “friends to all, enemies to none.”

Additionally, the Solomon Islands, on March 25, sought to justify the proposed agreement with China as necessary to improve the quality of the 800,000 people who live on the islands “and address soft and hard security threats facing the country.”

Even if this justification is plausible, the agreement dealing with police cooperation with Beijing can be characterised as an example of opportunism, or dollar diplomacy, which fails to consider the interests of the whole Pacific region, especially Australia.

The suggestion of Llewellyn-Smith to secure Guadalcanal and to seek regime change in Honiara is reminiscent of the invasion by the United States, under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, of the island of Grenada on Oct. 25, 1983, to restore order caused by internal divisions in the ruling communist party.

The Grenada invasion, coined “Operation Urgent Fury,” was a successful intervention that could be used as a boilerplate in case Australia decides to act upon Llewellyn-Smith’s recommendation.

The language of Article 1 of the proposed Solomon Islands-China security agreement is suitably vague. However, if it were interpreted as allowing China to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands, which is only 1,700 kilometres (1050 miles) from the coast of Queensland, Australia might well decide to act to protect its Asia-Pacific interests.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).