China’s Draft Military Agreement with Solomon Islands Leaked

A Pacific foothold for China?

Late last week, a draft security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, a Pacific Island country east of Papua New Guinea and less than 2,000 km north of Australia, was leaked on social media. The agreement would allow for Chinese military forces to "protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands" and for Solomon Islands to request that Beijing send police and armed forces to the country of fewer than one million people. Observers fear Chinese forces could be brought in to repress ethnic minority groups under the guise of protecting critical infrastructure or in the event of domestic disturbances or protests. The deal would also pave the way for Chinese military ships to stop over and replenish in the country’s ports. Honiara (Solomon Islands’ capital) has confirmed the agreement with China is part of its efforts to expand its security partnerships.

A complex picture in Solomon Islands . . .

The security document was leaked by an adviser to the premier of Malaita, Solomon Islands’ most populous province, only days before the country’s parliament was due to sit. Malaita’s political relationship with the capital is strained, in part based on longstanding ethnic tensions and allegations that Malaitans receive less economic opportunity than Guales, the native inhabitants of Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located. Ethnic tensions erupted into outright conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s, marked by violence between organized Malaitan and Guale paramilitaries. Ethnic tensions contributed to riots in Honiara last November. Further, Honiara’s decision to switch recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 added to ethnic frictions as Malaita supports a deepened relationship with Taipei rather than Beijing.

Towards new Pacific geopolitics?

Western analysts fear a China-Solomon Islands accord will facilitate the forward projection of the Chinese military further into the Pacific, which is of concern for Western allies in the region, including Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. The governments of Australia and New Zealand, the two traditional economic and security partners of Solomon Islands and several other Pacific Island countries, have voiced their opposition to the deal. In response, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has stated the negative reaction the agreement has elicited from the country’s traditional partners is “very insulting,” and the deal is now ready for signing. Sogavare also said his country’s security accord with Australia “remains in place and intact."