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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Reuters) – A security alliance between China and the Solomon Islands has sent tremors across the South Pacific, with many fearing it could trigger a large-scale military build-up or Western animosity at the regard to the agreement does not play into China’s hands.
What remains most unclear is the extent of China’s ambitions.
A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would place it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also close to Guam, with its huge US military bases.
China so far operates only one recognized foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. Many believe that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is establishing a military network overseas, even though they don’t use the term “base”.
The Solomon Islands government said a draft agreement with China was initialed last week and would be “cleaned up” and signed soon.
The draft, which has been leaked online, says Chinese warships could stop in the Solomons for “logistical resupply” and that China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomons.” to help maintain social order.
The draft agreement specifies that China must approve information disclosed on joint security arrangements, including during press briefings.
The Solomon Islands, home to around 700,000 people, transferred diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 – a move rejected by the most populous province and a contributing factor to the riots last November.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded in February, saying Washington would reopen its embassy in the capital, Honiara, which has been closed since 1993, to increase its influence in the Solomons before China becomes “strongly entrenched”.
China and the Solomons have strongly denied that the new pact leads to the establishment of a Chinese military base. The Solomon Islands government said the pact was needed because of its limited ability to deal with violent uprisings like the one in November.
“The country has been ruined by recurrent internal violence for years,” the government said this week.
But Australia, New Zealand and the United States have all expressed concern about the deal, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing it as “seriously concerning”.
David Panuelo, the president of neighboring Micronesia, which has close ties to the United States, wrote an impassioned letter to Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare asking him to rethink the deal.
He noted that Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlegrounds during World War II, caught in the clash of great powers.
“I’m confident that none of us ever want to see a conflict of this magnitude or magnitude ever again, and especially in our own backyards,” Panuelo wrote.
But the Solomon Islands police minister scoffed at Panuelo’s concerns on social media, saying he should be more worried about his own atoll being swallowed up by the ocean due to climate change.
Sogavare also dismissed foreign criticism of the security deal as insulting, while calling those who leaked the plan “crazy”.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the agreement aims to maintain the safety of people’s lives and property and “has no military connotation”, saying media speculation about the potential development of a basis were baseless.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said China has been pursuing such a port facility for about five years in a bid to expand its naval presence in the South Pacific as part of the long Beijing game. seeking to become the dominant regional power.
“If they’re going to break into the Pacific, at some point they’re going to need the logistical capability to sustain that presence,” Graham said. “We are not talking about war plans here; it’s really about expanding their presence and influence.
Unlike the base built in Djibouti, where China has commercial interests to protect in the region, Graham said any operation in the Solomon Islands would likely be less substantial.
“It’s quite a subtle and interesting geopolitical game that has emerged in the South Pacific,” he added. “And I think the Chinese have been very successful, if you will, in outflanking the United States and Australia in an influence competition, not a military competition.”
The Chinese base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. China does not call it a base, but rather a support facility for its naval operations against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and for its peacekeeping operations in Africa. It has a 400-meter (1,300-foot) runway and a pier large enough to moor one of two aircraft carriers operating in China.
The base, with 2,000 personnel, allows China to position supplies, troops and equipment in a strategically crucial region, while keeping tabs on US forces stationed nearby.
Chief among other potential candidates for the base is Cambodia, whose authoritarian leader Hun Sen has long been a trusted Chinese ally and which reportedly signed a secret deal in 2019 allowing for the establishment of a Chinese base.
China is dredging the port of Ream Naval Base to allow ships larger than any Cambodia to dock, and building new infrastructure to replace a US-built naval tactical headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia would establish a choke point in the Gulf of Thailand near the crucial Strait of Malacca.
China has also funded projects in Gwadar in Pakistan, another close ally, and in Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure loans forced the government to cede control of the southern port of Hambantota.
Particularly intriguing has been an alleged Chinese push to establish a base in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. This would give China a presence on the Atlantic across from the east coast of the continental United States as well as in a major oil-producing region in Africa.
“China has seized opportunities to expand its influence at a time when the United States and other countries are not as economically engaged in the Pacific Islands,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, China foreign policy expert at Montclair. State University in New Jersey.
About 80 years ago in the Solomon Islands, the U.S. military launched its famous World War II “island hopping” campaign to retake the Pacific islands one by one from Imperial Japanese forces. He managed to recapture the main island of Guadalcanal in February 1943 after about six months of fierce fighting.
Today, the Solomon Islands would give China the potential ability to interfere with US naval operations in the region that could be crucial in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or in the South and East China Seas.
Lt-General Greg Bilton, Australia’s joint operations chief, said if Chinese navy ships could operate from the Solomon Islands it would “change the calculus”.
“They are much closer to mainland Australia, obviously, and that would change the way we would undertake our day-to-day operations, particularly in the air and at sea,” he told reporters.
But Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said he believed leaders had overreacted to the deal, possibly in Australia’s case. because an election is looming.
“It clearly makes everyone in the West very excited and very alarmed,” Pryke said. “But I don’t think it changes things significantly on the pitch.”
He said the pact could be seen as the first step towards establishing a base by China, but many more steps would need to be taken before that could happen.
“I think the scaremongering has strengthened China’s hand by pushing Solomon Islands into a corner,” Pryke said. “And they reacted the way I imagine many countries would react if they came under this outside pressure – pushing back and digging in their elbows.”