June 2022


The China–Solomons deal is not about us

By Waleed Aly and Jack Corbett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The new Pacific security pact reflects America’s influence, not Australia’s

National politics often creates two illusions. First, that our country is a major protagonist in everything that concerns us. Second, that those things are, to some significant degree, within our government’s control. The result is that our politicians end up arguing breathlessly over something in which they actually have very little say. So it is with the Solomon Islands’ security deal with China. Immediately upon landing in the recent federal election campaign, it filled a standard frame of partisan politics, becoming either a monumental Coalition foreign policy failure or a sign of how necessary the Coalition’s tough-on-China posturing was. And then came the responses: Labor pledging $525 million in foreign aid to the Solomons and funding to restore ABC broadcasts to the region, and mid-ranking Australian officials raising “serious concerns” with their Chinese counterparts via something akin to a Zoom call.

But what domestic politics obscures, and what is so difficult to see amid all the political heat surrounding this issue, is that this whole episode isn’t really about us. In fact, of the four countries most directly involved, we’re comfortably the least relevant.

There are, broadly speaking, two convincing ways of looking at this development. Both capture important truths. Neither has anything much to do with recent Australian government policy towards the Solomon Islands.

The first understands it with reference to local Solomon Islands politics and the peculiar position of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare within it. A somewhat mercurial figure, Sogavare is in his fourth stint as prime minister, having variously survived and fallen to several no-confidence motions. Upon returning to power in 2019, he set about aligning his country with Beijing, formally recognising China over Taiwan and thereby reversing the Solomon Islands’ position of 36 years. This turn, known in the Solomons as “the Switch”, enlivened a serious faultline in Solomons politics, expressed along familiar lines of ethnic inter-island tensions. It also led to upheaval in his government, with the deputy prime minister, education minister, planning minister and police minister either resigning or being sacked.

Sogavare’s relationship with Australia has been somewhat changeable over the past 15 years. He accused Australia of violating Solomons sovereignty in the 2000s when he objected to the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an Australian project to establish peace and order at the invitation of the then Solomons government. But when RAMSI ended its 14-year operation in 2017, he declared the mission a success story, tearfully thanking Australia for saving the country. A persuasive view of Sogavare, then, sees him as pragmatic and transactional: not regarding Australia and China as a zero-sum choice – which is our political framing – but, rather, interested in what benefit he can extract from both.

And that delivers us to a second approach to understanding this episode: putting it in the broad context of small nations’ place in a world with a new superpower rising to challenge the old one. This view is worth teasing out because it has been so comprehensively ignored in Australian analysis. Yet it is crucial to making sense of this moment.

In this respect, the most important player is probably the United States, whose involvement in the region began in the late 19th century when it colonised Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa, and laid claim to several other islands. During World War Two, it fought some of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War on islands such as Peleliu (Palau) and Kwajalein (Marshall Islands) to wrest them from the Japanese. When Japan surrendered, the US kept them as a United Nations–mandated “strategic trust territory”.

Guam is now one of the most strategically important US military bases in the Asia-Pacific. The surrounding Mariana Islands have a “covenant” with the US that provides them with a political status similar to Puerto Rico’s. Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) became independent nations, but did so in “free association” with the US. That effectively means America gives them money and provides their citizens a right to reside in the US under a “compact”, in return for which the US military is permitted to rent land to build bases, and enjoys freedom of movement through these territories. Perhaps now that sort of thing sounds familiar. These arrangements are not colonial-era relics. The US is currently renegotiating its compact with the three freely associated states, and last year announced it would build a new military base in FSM.

Most Australians are probably unaware of this, but if they were – as strong US allies – they likely wouldn’t blink. If, however, you were an emerging superpower, based in Asia and not warmly disposed towards America, you might blink very hard indeed. And if we shelve our own geopolitical preferences for a moment and look at this from China’s perspective, a very obvious question arises: Given this accumulation of American military power nearby, why wouldn’t you start replying in kind?

You would. And China has been. The Solomon Islands deal, while having more scope for expansion than other forays, is really just the most recent, high-profile example. It also shows China going about this in a way that is not dissimilar to the Americans: exchanging money for influence and paving the way for access to key territory. All China needs is buyers.

Enter Sogavare’s Solomon Islands. Australia is massively put out by this for obvious reasons. This is on our doorstep, we increasingly regard China as an aggressor, and we have poured billions of dollars into the Solomons over the past 20 years, including via RAMSI. This, we assume, should have bought us some amount of loyalty, and perhaps among many Solomon Islanders it has. That it hasn’t won over everyone leads us to believe that we must have done something egregious to lose our grip, and that we should now be able to get it back.

But again, that assumes this is about us. It isn’t.

The Solomon Islands is a small, independent, postcolonial state struggling sufficiently for economic viability to fall within the UN’s “Least Developed Countries” classification. There are plenty of small countries facing a similar postcolonial conundrum, not just in the Pacific, but in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean too. These small developing island-states typically have two things they can sell to the world: tourism and their own sovereignty.

How do you sell sovereignty? Well, by becoming a tax haven, or selling fishing rights or passports, for example. You can sell off postage stamps, coins or your internet domain name, especially if, like Tuvalu, you were fortunate enough to receive a country designation as desirable as “.tv”. You might sell off your diplomatic recognition, which is why most of the handful of countries that recognise Taiwan are small island nations, and also why some of them have recently decided to recognise China instead, exactly as the Solomon Islands has.

The Solomons doesn’t have a tourism industry like Fiji or Vanuatu. It does have logging, mining and agriculture, but not on a scale that has delivered the level of economic development its people desire. The truth is that of all the Solomons’ assets, sovereignty has the growth potential. And now, as the China–US rivalry inexorably intensifies, its value is surging. So, look at this from the Solomon Islands’ perspective and a very obvious question arises: If China wants to enter the market for sovereignty goods, why wouldn’t you consider selling to it? And what if China sought to rent some of your territory in an arrangement similar to that of the US in Micronesia? The recent agreement makes no mention of a permanent base, but you would likely at least consider such a deal. Even its possibility might extract more resources out of Australia and the US. And if you are Sogavare, it might buttress your position against domestic opponents, too. What’s not to like?

That’s just hard pragmatism. It’s not personal. It isn’t even really ideological. And most relevantly for Australia, this isn’t primarily a soft-power problem. And that’s an issue because soft power is basically all we have to offer. Increased aid may be a worthy idea as far it goes, but in the present context that isn’t very far. Australia is already the biggest aid donor in the region, but the idea that this alone will achieve our strategic aims is a thought from a bygone era, before we found ourselves on the cusp of a bidding war with a superpower. Aid is no longer a game changer because the game has changed. The value of sovereignty in the region is rising, and shrewd island leaders will play large powers against each other to maximise returns.

There are plenty of reasons China might never establish a military base in the Solomon Islands. Perhaps Sogavare’s approach has stirred up too much domestic opposition to the idea. The country has an election on the horizon, and were he to lose power, the current Opposition has said it will tear the agreement up. Perhaps the US, which has had precious little involvement in the Solomon Islands, will be stung into action and outbid whatever China offers. Already, it is expediting the opening of a new embassy in Honiara. And if all that isn’t enough, the US hasn’t ruled out military action.

In that context, the main way in which this affair is about us is that we are an important and close ally of the US. Any Chinese base in the Solomon Islands would be a proxy to deter us, another proxy in a much larger geopolitical contest in which Australian politicians are bit-part players.

In which case, the most relevant feature of our policy is not our neglect of the Pacific. That is often overstated in any case: the region was protected from the most savage foreign cuts of the Abbott years, for example. Far more central is that we have a passionate, enduring bromance with China’s single greatest geopolitical rival. The way our politicians and large sections of our media fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room does all of us a disservice. We don’t need to switch sides – and maybe we don’t even need to pick a side at all. But we certainly need to ask ourselves the question: Given China’s rise, what exactly do we want our relationship with the US to be? What won’t work is to fall unthinkingly into an answer, then assume we have the power and influence to mop up the fallout.

Waleed Aly and Jack Corbett

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic. Jack Corbett is professor of politics at the University of Southampton. His next book, Statehood à la Carte in the Caribbean and the Pacific: Secession, Regionalism, and Postcolonial Politics, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2023.


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