Amidst the rising tensions in Europe, the Pacific is proving to be another battleground in the struggle for control and influence between Eastern and Western powers. In a press conference last Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the construction of a Chinese military facility in the Solomon Islands would serve as a “red line” for his administration following the signing of the Solomon Islands-China security deal.
Morrison added that his country’s concern is shared by the major powers in the region, as well as the United States, who share the same “red line” with Australia, according to the Prime Minister.
“This is a shared concern, not just Australia. This is Australia with regional governments,” he said.
“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” Morrison added. The Solomons is just 1,200 miles (2,000) kilometers from Australia. Having a Chinese base in the islands brings the possibility of a nearby hostile base in the event of a conflict.
Last Wednesday, Solomon Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare confirmed that his government had signed a security deal with China. The agreement would allow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to send military and police personnel to the island “to assist in maintaining social order.”
The security pact will also allow Chinese military vessels to use the Solomons port facilities for “logistical replenishment,” which has drawn concern for a possible Chinese naval base in the country.
Sogavare defended his country’s decision as part of their current “internal security situation,” noting that the agreement complemented a previous 2017 security deal with Australia that allowed Australian peacekeepers to be deployed in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital.
“I ask all our neighbors, friends, and partners to respect the sovereign interest of Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region,” Sogavare said in parliament.
Last November, the Solomon Islands suffered from rioting and looting partly because of dissent from Sogavare’s foreign policy shift in favor of China. During this time, the Solomon Island’s Government asked for police support from both Australia and China, with the latter dispatching a heavily armed security detail, according to a leaked document.
The security deal is celebrated as a major diplomatic victory for China which has long been trying to establish its influence in the Western Pacific. As for Morrison, he did not elaborate when asked about what moves the Australian government will take in the event the “red line” is crossed.
The United States, which also has its concerns in the region due to Chinese expansionism in the region, responded to the news of a security deal between the Solomons and China. A team composed of top senior US officials in the Pacific met with Sogavare to outline the US’ concerns on the deal.
“We wanted to outline for our friends in the Solomons, what our concerns are,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said. “We’ve made clear that there are potential regional security implications of the agreement not just for ourselves, but for allies and partners across the region.”
Last Tuesday, the Ambassador reiterated the willingness of the US to respond accordingly if a Chinese naval base was constructed in the Solomons.
“We have respect for the Solomon Islands sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns,” he said.
When asked to expound on the US’ response, the ambassador said that he is not “in a position to talk about what the United States may or may not do in such a situation.”
In a White House release, it was reported that the “high-level strategic dialogue” between the US and the Solomon Islands aims to bolster communication and address mutual concerns.
“In particular, both sides agreed to discuss in greater detail security issues of mutual concern, economic and social development, public health, and finance and debt,” wrote the release.
Kritenbrink noted that the US is aware of China’s ambitions in the West Pacific to expand the military capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army in the region through the establishment of key infrastructure and logistics systems.
He added that the US is not asking for sovereign countries to choose between them or China. Instead, it intends to promote “a proactive vision for again the shared interests and principles that we believe are vital to all of our friends across the region.”