Australian and U.S. leaders should stop appealing to the Solomon Islands prime minister to change his mind on a contentious security deal with Beijing that could pave the way for militarisation of the region.
Instead, one expert on the South Pacific says the focus should be on engaging with stakeholders interested in democracy and weakening ties with China.
“The Solomon Islands has a wide and deep array of honest and dedicated leaders, including provincial premiers, members of Parliament, chiefs, faith leaders, women’s group leaders and more—many of whom have come out, on the record, as against the deal with China,” said Cleo Paskal, associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Programme at the London-based Chatham House.
On April 19, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed Beijing and the Solomon Islands had signed off on the “Security Cooperation between Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” which will open the door for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to militarise the region.
The deal, in essence, would allow the CCP—with the consent of the Solomons—to dispatch police, troops, weapons, and even naval ships to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands,” based on leaked pages from the document.
Paskal described Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government as a “crusty layer” of corruption attempting to block outside engagement with the country.
“It is that corrupt and unpopular layer that Canberra [and Washington D.C.] has prioritised for engagement,” she said. “Rather than meet with leaders who are likeminded—who believe in democracy, transparency, accountability rule of law—leaders continue to meet publicly almost exclusively with Sogavare and his coterie, in the process making Sogavare even more important and powerful.”
U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell is due to touchdown in the Solomon Islands in the coming days to speak with the Solomons’ prime minister—it comes after Australian foreign affairs officials, the presiding Pacific Minister Zed Seselja, and two heads of intelligence all met with the prime minister urging him to call-off the deal.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised for the Beijing deal, with the federal opposition claiming the incumbent centre-right Coalition government dropped the ball on aid funding and action on climate change.
“The government should have acted sooner. We live in a world where the strategic circumstances we face are riskier and more uncertain than in any time since the end of World War II,” Penny Wong, the Labor foreign spokesperson, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on April 20.
However, Paskal said competing with Beijing on aid would be fruitless, and that the security deal was not between China and the Solomon Islands, it was instead, between the CCP and Sogavare.
“Both (the CCP and Sogavare) need it to continue and deepen—even if that means triggering a civil war to justify its deployment,” she said, warning that the prime minister could engineer a false-flag situation to trigger the security arrangement and delay elections.
“If free and fair elections are held on schedule in 2023, it is likely a new government will come in and cancel the deal—and maybe even switch back to Taiwan,” she said. “Imagine what that will do to Xi’s credibility in China? His domestic enemies will say he can’t even hold on to a small pacific country—it will be a huge loss of face.”
“Neither can afford to back down. That’s why Australia and the United States putting their eggs in the Sogavare basket will only end up in an omelet eaten by Beijing. “