As China put it, it was a mutually beneficial agreement aimed at bringing peace and stability to the Solomon Islands, a country less than half the size of Manhattan that was rocked by violent protests last year.
But other countries saw it differently.
For Australia, New Zealand and the United States, this was the latest power game for Beijing in an ongoing struggle for influence in the Pacific — a move some claim threatens the region’s stability.
Speculation about what would be in the deal heightened after a leaked, unverified draft of the deal surfaced online last month.
Some were concerned that the agreement could see Canberra’s worst fear realized: a Chinese military base being built in the Solomon Islands, China’s first in the Pacific. Australia and the United States were so worried that they sent delegations to the Pacific island, hoping to stop the agreement.
But China announced that the agreement was signed on Tuesday, even before the US delegation had access.
But political and security concerns aside, experts say the situation is a reality check for Australia and its partners, and they need to take a different approach to China’s growing influence.
said Hugh White, Professor Emeritus of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, who previously served as a senior medical advisor to the Australian Minister of Defense and Prime Minister. “Both in Canberra and in Washington, they believe that somehow we can make China disappear, and put China back in its box.”
How did the agreement originate?
Concerns about the agreement have been circulating for weeks.
According to a leaked draft document – which CNN could not verify – the Solomon Islands will have the ability to order police or military personnel from China to maintain social order or help with disaster relief.
The deal appears to be related to violent protests that rocked the country’s capital, Honiara, in November last year, which erupted in part due to anger over the government’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan and shift allegiance to Beijing.
From the perspective of the Solomon Islands, the separate agreement with China may have been resumed, as it allowed the country to diversify its security relationship and take advantage of political situations in the region, said Tarcisius Capotaolaka, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who hails from the Solomon Islands.
But others worry that the agreement may be the first stage in a larger plan – to establish a permanent Chinese military presence on the islands.
Reaction to Tuesday The announcement of the signing of an agreement was swift.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari insisted on Wednesday that the agreement did not include permission for China to establish a military base, and urged critics to respect the country’s sovereign interests. “We entered into an agreement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stressed that the “open, transparent and comprehensive” agreement does not “target any third party”.
But despite the reassurances, there are still few details about what was signed – and onlookers say that in itself is worrisome.
“There is still a lot we don’t know about what the agreement itself actually says, as well as what it will lead to,” said White of the Australian National University.
Political expert Kaputaulaka said he believed it was unlikely that China would build a conventional military base in the Solomon Islands because it would create a lot of “negative propaganda” for Beijing inside and outside the island nation.
But experts say this does not mean that China will not have a military presence on the island – in a way.
If China had the ability to bring ships and military personnel to the Solomon Islands as indicated in the unverified draft document, there would be no real need Capotaolaka said it is a physical military base.
Mihai Sora, an expert on Australian Pacific foreign policy at the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, referred to Djibouti as a country that signed a security agreement that has evolved into a naval base that Beijing refers to as a logistics facility.
The prospect of a Chinese base in the Pacific is worrisome for the United States, which also has military bases in the region that have become more strategically important as China expands its military presence in the South China Sea. It’s also worrisome for Australia, which will likely face the prospect of Chinese ships docking not far from home – the Solomon Islands lie about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) off Australia’s northeastern coast.
“It may well be true that it will mean that Australia is less secure as a result of this agreement,” Caputawalaka said.
“In practical terms… I don’t think it damages Australia’s security as much as a lot of other people,” White said. “It’s an important issue if we find ourselves in a major war.”
What does the future hold?
The lack of general details about what is in the agreement is not only of concern to Solomon Islands’ international partners. Within the small country, uncertainty about what it actually contains has drawn criticism.
Some suggested that the deal itself could exacerbate tensions between those who support close ties with China and those who do not.
“The rhetoric about geopolitical competition is creating divisions that can become troublesome locally,” Caputawalaka said.
“There is also a need for the international community, and for Solomon Islanders in particular, to look at the challenges internally that at the time created the kinds of things we saw in November last year, which in turn created the need for Solomon Islands to sign the agreement. security with China.
Those challenges include economic inequality among islanders, with some criticizing their anger at Chinese companies they see as a symbol of closer ties with the mainland.
But the agreement also sends a much bigger message: that the approach of Australia and its allies in the region is not working.
Australia has long talked about the idea of a ‘Pacific family’. But according to White, Australia doesn’t pay much attention to the Pacific unless there are questions about security. More so, Australia and its allies are still stuck in the past, imagining that China’s power can be minimized and those countries can remain the dominant powers in the region, he said.
“Australia has found itself more and more over the past few years moving into a position where our approach to managing the rise of China is to try to prevent that from happening,” he said. “This is not going to work. Australia will have to learn to live with Chinese power – and that includes expanded Chinese influence in the southwest Pacific.”
“It’s a challenge for us to up our game to maintain our influence there – and that’s something we should be doing anyway.”
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