Canberra’s diplomatic dash . . .
Australia has sent its Minister for the Pacific, Senator Zed Seselja, to Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, to dissuade the Pacific country of less than one million from signing a security accord with China. The agreement, news of which leaked in late March, would allow China to send police and military personnel to the Pacific country upon Honiara’s request and for Chinese naval ships to resupply in its ports. Minister Seselja said Australia has “asked Solomon Islands, respectfully, to consider not signing the agreement,” adding that Australia is able to fulfil the security needs of Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries. Beijing responded by saying the deal “is beneficial to social stability and lasting security of Solomon Islands and conducive to promoting peace, stability and development of Solomon Islands and the South Pacific region.”
Australian aid, influence in the Pacific . . .
Most analysts interpret the proposed agreement through the lens of geopolitical competition in the Pacific. As Beijing seeks to expand its regional influence, the prospect of a Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands is unwelcome in Canberra, Washington, and other Western and regional capitals. Australia, the U.S.’s foremost South Pacific ally, has for years led security assistance efforts in Solomon Islands when domestic tensions have bubbled over into widespread violence, including through the 2003-2017 Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and again last year in response to riots in Honiara. Yet many Pacific governments welcome the opportunity to diversify their international partnerships, whether in security matters or development assistance. And while Australia remains the largest aid provider to Pacific countries, Beijing can be an attractive alternative for Pacific governments.
Rare diplomatic foray after election call . . .
Minister Seselja’s visit to Honiara was a highly unusual move. It came just days after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a long-anticipated federal election and required support from the opposition Australian Labor Party given the government was technically in a pre-election ‘caretaker’ phase. However, the minister’s visit is hardly the only attempt by a Western government to dissuade Solomon Islands from affirming the deal. Last week, top Australian intelligence officials met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to further Canberra’s opposition. Both New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have publicly stated Wellington’s concerns, and Mahuta has rallied other Pacific countries to oppose the agreement. Yesterday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State called the Solomon Islands Foreign Minister to press Washington’s opposition.
- The Guardian: US military leader warns Chinese security deal with Solomon Islands sounds ‘too good to be true’
- South China Morning Post: Australia-China relations: Solomon Islands faces pressure over security pact as US weighs in, Scott Morrison sends minister amid election campaign
- The Sydney Morning Herald: Australia tells Solomon Islands not to sign China deal