AUKUS, the new global strategic alliance, has been issued its first major challenge by Beijing while the world is preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
A proposed strategic accord between the Solomon Islands and China has emerged as the first great test of the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance and how quickly Australia could retrieve the situation within its sphere of responsibility.
The New Zealand government, linked to Australia and the United States through the ANZUS Treaty, shared Canberra’s concern over the Honiara-Beijing security pact. Australia has civil and military options in dealing with the Solomons’ Chinese security linkage.
These could be voiced in the run-up to Australia’s elections to show the firmness of the Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The election may be held on May 14. By late March, the opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP) had a 55:45 advantage in opinion polls. Morrison could take steps before the election, and an incoming ALP Government would, if elected, probably retain his regional commitments.
The Beijing-Honiara pact would allow China's security forces and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to utilize the Solomons’ ports and other facilities and permit Beijing to deploy security forces into the Solomons to protect Chinese investments. Some of these “Chinese investments” would be in islands and areas held by opponents of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare so that, effectively, China's “security forces” would be used to suppress Sogavare’s opposition.
On June 3, 2019, Morrison visited Honiara on his first overseas visit after winning the election as party leader. It was the first visit to the Solomons by an Australian prime minister in more than a decade. It was to try to stop Sogavare's government from switching the Solomons’ diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) to China.
It did not sway Sogavare; he switched recognition to Beijing.
Australia has been the most significant economic supporter of the Solomons. And while in Honiara, Morrison pledged $170 million in new infrastructure aid.
China extended its foothold in the South Pacific in 2019, also getting neighboring Kiribati to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. By 2021, China offered to upgrade a World War II airfield on Kanton Island in Kiribati, the closest South Pacific nation to Hawaii, 1,864 miles to the northeast.
The Solomons and Kiribati moves place China into the South Pacific, beyond the First Island Chain. This would inhibit AUKUS’ ability to protect Taiwan in the event of war. It would also put China astride the junction of major undersea communications cables near the Solomons.
Ironically, Australia sent troops to the Solomons in November 2021 to save Sogavare after protestors stormed the parliament to remove him. Sogavare, who had taken substantial secret funding from Beijing, had called for Australia (not China) to save him—under the 2017 Australia-Solomons Security Pact—when the protests became violent. That pact allows Australian forces to be deployed to the Solomon Islands in times of emergency.
Significantly, the Australian deployment of 2021 caused Sogavare to bring in Chinese “advisers”; perhaps he sensed that Canberra would not tolerate much more.
By 2017, Australia had spent $3 billion and 14 years in peacekeeping in the Solomons.
Australia, some 2,000 miles from the Solomons, has legitimate cause to pressure the Honiara government as a result of the Oct. 15, 2000, “Townsville Agreement,” which ended hostilities between the Malaita Eagle Force (Malaita Province), the Isatabu Freedom Movement (Guadalcanal), and the government.
The Solomons government never implemented its commitments in Part Four of that peace accord to stop the civil war. But the Australian government, in particular, funded the Solomons government based on that peace agreement.
Canberra could now threaten a range of sanctions against Solomons’ politicians, including withdrawal of aid and a ban on Solomons officials transiting Australia or holding their assets in Australia (the closest haven for many Solomon politicians).
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama may emerge to spearhead mediation. Like New Zealand and Australia, Fiji has deployed peacekeeping forces to the Solomons in recent years.
Meanwhile, the United States announced plans in February to reopen its embassy in the Solomons.