The pact between Solomon Islands and China is their business

The US and Australia can do with examining their patronising behaviour

A photo taken on April 22, 2022 shows 

China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming (R), and Solomon's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (L) inaugurate a China-funded national stadium complex in Honiara, that will host the 2023 Pacific Games for the first time in the island state. AFP

Western leaders have been saying for years now that no country should have the right to exert a sphere of influence. Sovereign nations must be allowed to determine their own foreign policy without hindrance. The US-led Nato alliance certainly does not approve of one country invading or threatening another in order to stop the second strengthening relations with a state or bloc of which the first does not approve.

And yet, it appears that none of these principles apply in the Asia-Pacific. Take the case of the Solomon Islands. With a population of less than 700,000, it would be fair to say that this maritime nation does not make the news very often, and that perhaps most of us would struggle to locate the islands accurately without the aid of an atlas. You might also think that their foreign policy was a matter for internal debate – in the country’s parliament, for instance – and that if a premier took a decision the voters didn’t like, they could vote him out at the next election.

But that is clearly not what politicians in America and Australia believe. For when the Solomons’ Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, announced that he had signed a security agreement with China last month, the response was near apocalyptic. The Australian Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong denounced premier Scott Morrison for it happening on his watch, and said it was "the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the Second World War."

Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, on October  9, 2019. AP

The agreement allows for the Solomons to ask for police and military assistance, and for China to send forces to protect Chinese personnel and projects – only if the islands’ government agrees. There is nothing about permanent military bases. That didn’t stop the Biden administration swiftly despatching its Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, to have stern words with Mr Sogavare. The White House then issued what could be called a “statement with menaces”: "If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation… the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly."

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The US and Australia should also examine their own deeply patronising behaviour

It didn’t go quite as far as one Australian commentator who called for the Solomons to be invaded, as this is supposedly Canberra's version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Mr Morrison has said that a Chinese military base – which again, everyone has denied is being planned – would be a red line for both Australia and the US.

It’s almost as if these two countries, whose governments treated their original inhabitants as third class citizens until very recently, think the Pacific is their own sphere of influence. But that surely can’t be right, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said only recently that such notions “should be delegated to the dustbin of history”. He could not have been clearer. “One country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate,” he said.

US National Security Council's Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell (L) leaves after a meeting with the Solomon Islands opposition leader Mathew Wale (R) in Honiara on April 22. AFP

The double standard is so grotesque that it must not be ignored, nor excused on the grounds that the Solomons are a tiny country; for that truly would be a bullies’ charter. It was not lost on China's vice foreign minister Xie Feng, who pointed out that making an agreement was “the sacred right of two sovereign countries”, and said that the Pacific was “the common home of regional countries, not someone's 'backyard' or 'turf'.”

So why the hysteria? Well, the Solomons may be small, but they are in a strategic location, and it is true that China has militarised islands in the South China Sea after giving assurances that it would not – although that is different, since in that case, Beijing claims the area as its own.

But it is hard not to see the reaction as straightforward Sinophobia, as yet another instance of every action Beijing takes overseas being seen as inherently malign. The reality, as with many of the projects that come under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is frequently that no other country is willing to assist developing countries that have gaps in their capacities.

As it happens, the Solomons already have a security agreement with Australia. But Mr Sogavare said that this was insufficient, as during riots in 2006 and 2021, “even with Australia’s support we could not prevent half of Honiara [the capital] from being razed to the ground.” The islands, he said, had “no option but to enter into security agreement with our other bilateral partners to plug the gaps that exist in our security agreement with Australia”.

In short, America and Australia are now browbeating and trying to intimidate the leader of a small Pacific nation for having the audacity to turn to China for policing assistance that no one else was providing.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy on the sphere of influence front, which is so blatant that US officials should be embarrassed to keep parroting the same old lines, this is an unedifying spectacle. The Solomons are not a colony any more. Who they make agreements with is their business, and if both China and Australia have security agreements with the country, this could be an opportunity for the two to co-operate rather than continue their arguments about trade and human rights.

The US and Australia should also examine their own deeply patronising behaviour, and ask themselves this: do they really think it is still justifiable for European settler nations to tell peoples indigenous to the Asia-Pacific what they can and cannot do?

Published: May 04, 2022, 4:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National