China’s dream of becoming a naval power has been boosted by the “initialling” of a Beijing-Solomons security deal.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative scheme has long been entangled with a parallel plan to create a Chinese blue-water navy capable of projecting its power across the globe.
Although China’s navy is still not in the same league as America’s, it is no longer confined to merely protecting its coastal waters and does pose a serious challenge to Washington.
Part of the planning around the blue water navy includes establishing Chinese naval bases around the globe. For example, this new security agreement with the Solomon Islands opens the door for a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific by granting Beijing the right to ship visits and logistical replenishment.
Coupled with China’s construction of an airfield in the Pacific nation of Kiribati, it signals that Beijing has serious intentions to establish a new forward position in the region.
For Australia, Beijing’s Solomon’s move will necessitate a rethink of its defence strategies, given the Solomon Islands has given the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a strong base if Beijing and Canberra were ever to go to war. This means more Australian forces will need to be kept at home for defence; in turn, it also makes Chinese surveillance of Australia much easier.
The Solomon’s agreement also shows us that Beijing has found the recipe for projecting itself militarily into the South Pacific. It is the same recipe CCP is using in regions like Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and those parts of Asia that are characterised by weak, underdeveloped countries with poor governance.
Manipulating the governments of such countries is easy because they are generally unable to exercise full sovereignty over their territory and are characterised by the politics of cronyism and patronage. In these societies, Beijing only has to allocate minimal sums of money to “buy” politicians and thereby gain control of government policy.
The poorer the country, the more Beijing is also able to use trade as leverage. China has discovered that where it can create trade dependence, it gains the ability to bully governments.
Hence, we can see this process in action with Beijing recently cutting tariffs for New Zealand to try to entice and ensnare it into China’s Belt and Road web of trade.
Beijing even believed they could use trade dependence to bully Australia. Turns out they were wrong, but when it comes to smaller countries (like the Solomons), trade dependence clearly gives Beijing leverage in negotiations (China imports 80 percent of the Solomons’ exports).
China has also learned that underdeveloped countries are characterised by “chip on the shoulder” politics associated with decolonisation that saw these countries gain independence but now are unable to run effective governments or economies.
These countries find it convenient (or “comforting”) to excuse their failures by blaming “colonialism” or by accusing the developed world of being exploitative, patronising, or neo-colonial. A recent variation of this “chip on the shoulder” politics has been to exploit the radical left, Green narrative that underdeveloped Pacific island countries are victims of climate change caused by the developed world.
Beijing has learned to exploit this “chip on the shoulder” politics by claiming it is also a victim of Western paternalism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Beijing claims shared victimhood and fraternal brotherhood with underdeveloped countries. We saw Beijing play this victim card in the Solomons by prodding its Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s anti-colonial resentments. This led to Sogavare angrily saying “we find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs.”
The irony is that the Solomons have demonstrated over and over again that they are not a functioning sovereign state able to manage their own affairs. The Solomon Islands is an aid-dependent country with 15 percent of its GDP comprised of foreign grants and loans. Australia is the biggest donor to the Solomons at $170 million a year.
An Asia Development Bank report said the Solomons’ government is so weak that donors were warned not to pour too much aid into it because of the limited ability of the country to absorb it—too much aid would simply overwhelm what limited administrative capacity it had and simply fuel corruption and waste.
The Bank noted the government provided only limited services in the capital Honiara, and no services outside of the area. The country was also defined as a post-conflict society with a subsistence economy and at high risk of becoming a failed state.
Only five months ago, Sogavare’s own government had to be saved by Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, who sent police and army units to restore order. The coalition ended violent civil unrest caused by a clash between the Solomons’ two most powerful leaders, Prime Minister Sogavare, and provincial leader Daniel Suidani.
The genesis of the clash was born when Sogavare switched the Solomons’ diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, a move that threatened the economic patronage Suidani received from Taipei. The diplomatic switch secured economic patronage from Beijing for Sogavare, giving him the resources needed to win the next election. Such is the nature of politics in small failing states.
And this is not the first time Australia has had to go and restore law and order in the Solomons. In 2003, Australia led an international peace-keeping mission to the region called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
Over a period of 14 years, law and order were restored and infrastructure rebuilt. This RAMSI peace-keeping and development mission cost Australia AU$2.6 billion.
Australia has spent a lot of money being a good neighbour to the Solomon Islands. But apparently, Prime Minister Sogavare thinks that means nothing and that he can now do better by snuggling up to Beijing.
Sogavare believes he can cash in on the emergence of global competition between the United States and China.
Back during the Cold War days, corrupt politicians in weak, underdeveloped countries from the Pacific to Africa and Latin America to Asia got rich, playing the two sides off against each other. Bad governments were kept in power by either the Soviets or Americans (simply to keep the other team out).
Perhaps Sogavare thinks the good times are back and that the “new Cold War” means he can simultaneously get his snout into the troughs of Beijing, Canberra, and Washington.
The prime minister says he wants to be “friends to all, enemies to none.” And he says the security deal brings a “development” dimension for the Solomons, which presumably means more Beijing-patronage money for Sogavare and his team.
Good luck to Sogavare in trying to get his snout into all those troughs. I suspect he may learn the hard way that playing international politics is more difficult than he thinks and that deals can produce all kinds of unintended consequences.
One of the largest battles in World War II was at Guadalcanal, a mere 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Honiara. This is no accident. It is because this is a very strategic piece of territory for anyone thinking about conflict with Australia. That is why the Imperial Japanese Army went there. Now China has come knocking.
And Sogavare has let Beijing put its foot in the door, a move that may not play out so well for him and Solomon Islanders.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Eric Louw is a retired professor in political communication with a career spanning South African and Australian universities. Prior to that, he was a former activist, journalist, and media trainer under the African National Congress, where he worked on South Africa’s transition into the post-Apartheid era. Louw is an expert on affirmative action, and Black Economic Empowerment policies. His Ph.D. was in the study of Marxism and its postmodern developments. He has authored nine books including “The Rise, Fall and Legacy of Apartheid” and “The Media and Political Process.”