Chinese President Xi Jinping, shortly after taking office, remarked in 2012 that “the vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States.” The comment was made at a time when Washington was developing its “pivot” or “rebalance” policies in the Asia-Pacific out of concerns about China’s potential to create a sphere of influence in the region that could reach as far as the Pacific Islands. At the time, Beijing’s Pacific policies had been predominantly marked by economic engagement, including via the Belt and Road Initiative, rather than overt strategic considerations.
Since then, however, much has changed. The de facto diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan, which discouraged both parties from swaying each other’s allies, faded quickly when Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016. Three years later, the Chinese government succeeded in convincing two Pacific Island states, Kiribati and Solomon Islands, to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. And last month, China’s political designs in the Pacific were further revealed when a draft security agreement between China and the Solomons was leaked, including provisions for stationing Chinese military and police personnel in the island state and allowing Chinese vessels to replenish supplies there.
The news created much alarm in the region, especially from traditional regional Pacific powers Australia and New Zealand. Despite subsequent assurances by Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that the deal did not include the possibility of a permanent Chinese naval facility, both Canberra and Wellington expressed worries that the stage was nonetheless being set for a more formalized Chinese military presence in the southern Pacific. The potential security deal has not been ignored in Washington either. Plans were made last week for high-ranking U.S. officials, including “Indo-Pacific czar” Kurt Campbell, to fly to Honiara for bilateral talks that are very likely to include discussions about Sino-Solomon Islands security cooperation.
For Washington and Canberra in particular, the prospect of Beijing becoming involved in security matters in the Pacific Islands has confirmed their earlier suspicions. As the office of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne noted in a statement, “the Pacific family” ought to be the one providing “security assistance,” with a clear insinuation that China is not part of such a close-knit “family.” Meanwhile, during a pre-election press conference in mid-April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison once again doubled down on Canberra’s concerns about a Chinese military presence, stating that it is “a serious issue that we’ll continue to press.” On April 12 it was announced that Australia’s Pacific minister, Zed Seselja, would also travel to Honiara to discuss the security pact with the Sogavare government.
While the White House remained quiet on the issue, a top U.S. official remarked that they were “undoubtedly concerned” and the U.S. Department of Defense raised concerns about China’s “security forces and their methods [being] exported.” After all, an expansionist Beijing does not fit into either Australia’s or the United States’ vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and almost certainly threatens the power status quo that Canberra and Washington, and to a lesser extent Wellington, have enjoyed until recently.
Ultimately, none of these concerns struck a chord with either Honiara or Beijing, and the deal is now well underway. In fact, aggravated by the persistent criticism, Sogavare eventually called out those who “branded [Solomon Islands] unfit to manage [its] sovereign affairs.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin struck a similarly harsh tone when he refuted the idea of the Pacific Islands being “the backyard” of any country, while reiterating that respecting national sovereignty is key to Beijing’s Pacific engagement strategy.
Perhaps ironically, the overt critiques directed toward the Sogavare government might have propelled him to stay on course. Honiara effectively snubbed its largest neighbor, Australia, by implicitly accusing Canberra of undermining the Pacific nation’s integrity and only acting on their national interest of pushing back Beijing at all costs.
From a wider geopolitical perspective, the security deal appears to be a direct response to the establishment or revival of larger Indo-Pacific security groupings. In particular, the AUKUS pact ruffled more than just a few feathers. Beijing, unsurprisingly, initially responded by calling the trilateral alliance callous, warning of the return of a “Cold War mentality” that undermines efforts for regional stability. Reports in mid-2020 that the U.S. military was also seeking to augment its capabilities on Wake Island may have also contributed to Chinese concerns about being excluded from the region without some sort of counter-balancing policies.
The questions which now need to be asked concerning the future effects of this security agreement include whether it will contribute to the overall image of the region as an area of strategic contention, perhaps even leading to additional security agreements and arms build-ups. The security deal has already created unease elsewhere in the Pacific, with President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia directly appealing to Honiara to scrap the deal. How will the agreement impact the already fragile state of Pacific multilateralism, in light of the possible fracturing of the Pacific Islands Forum with the pending departure of its Micronesian members?
In effect, Australia, as the largest power in the region, may have to strongly reconsider its very attempt to reboot its Pacific diplomacy via its “Step-up” policies, especially ahead of crucial national elections. As an Australian parliamentary report stated in March of this year, the country has much more to accomplish in building regional soft power and diversifying links with Pacific nations. In light of the China-Solomon Islands security pact, calls are growing louder for Morrison to demonstrate that Australia is not solely basing its Pacific engagement policies on marginalizing China.
Finally, there is the concern that a predominantly hard power focus will undermine far more pressing concerns among the Pacific Islands, ranging from the ongoing danger related to climate change to sea level rise. Despite the 2018 Boe Declaration, which centered on climate change as being the “single greatest threat” to Pacific livelihoods, many regional governments remain worried that their island states will continue to bear the brunt of global inaction in addressing environmental threats.
Thus, despite Xi Jinping’s words, evidence is mounting that at least in the eyes of traditional Pacific powers, a vast ocean may not be vast enough to accommodate the Pacific’s expanding geopolitical rivalries.