THE SOLOMON ISLANDS – PART ll – “RED LINES”
With Australia’s Federal elections only weeks away, China’s strategic coup has caught the Morrison government off guard, handing the Opposition Labor Party a political gift, and putting Australia’s handling of the Solomon’s deal at the centre of the election campaign.
Solomon Islands’ National Interest
China has been courting the Solomons’ Prime Minister Sogavare for years. This may have contributed to the Solomons’ 2019 decision to recognise Beijing over Taiwan, no doubt in the Island’s “National Interest”. In 1979, the US ended formal political relations with Taiwan, recognising the PRC instead (as with Australia and more than 190 UN member states). In responding to Australian complaints, Sogavare took a leaf out of Morrison’s playbook saying that his country was “guided by our national interests.” Sogavare made it clear that he believed that he was “on the right side of history”.
Some security elites warn that China’s early efforts develop into political influence, with growing financial involvement. That is undoubtedly true. It would be pure hypocrisy to suggest that any of USA, Australia, or China is motivated solely by kind hearted benevolence when contributing financial and other assistance to Pacific Island nations. China has sought to extend its influence globally, focusing most of the time on its economic objectives. More than 100 countries have signed up to its Belt and Road Initiative. It has been pouring money into development assistance and disaster relief in the Pacific. Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and others have been recipients.
In response to Western complaints that the Chinese presence in the Solomons gives it control over crucial shipping lanes, the Chinese Foreign Ministry asked, “Does the US regard the Pacific Island country as an independent sovereign country, or as its appendage? Is it to develop equal relations with the island nation, or seek to control the island nation?”
Xi Jinping’ Peaceful Overtures
The US complains about China having a military support base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa while remaining mute about America’s 800 military bases scattered around the globe. The Chinese leader, Xi makes no secret about wanting to challenge US dominance in the Asian region. After all, Kishore Mahbubani describes this period as “The Asian 21st Century”. In a recent speech Xi proposed a “global security initiative” to replace a US-managed alliance saying, “We should uphold the principle of indivisibility of security, build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture, and oppose the building of national security on the basis of insecurity in other countries.” Those words echo similar sentiments previously expressed by the Chinese President.
After President Biden’s November 2021 Democracy Summit, Xi (who was obviously not invited to the summit) announced that China was ready to work with Biden to build consensus and to move China-US relations forward in a positive direction. He added that “In the next 50 years, the most important thing in international relations is that China and the United States must find the right way to get along.” Earlier that year, Xi Jinping said, “Civilisations don’t have to clash with each other. We should keep our civilisations dynamic and create conditions for other civilisations to flourish.” In 1963, John F. Kennedy said “So, let us not be blind to our differences - but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.”
It takes a great stretch of the imagination to talk about the “China threat” or to actually believe that China represents an existential threat to the West.
The Australian Red line
Australia’s Defence Minister, Dutton, without a shred of evidence, accuses the Chinese of “paying bribes to beat other countries to deals”. In a recent opinion piece, Alexander Downer, somewhat patronisingly, suggests the best approach would be for the Australian government to work intensively with the public of the Solomon Islands and to explain to the public, our concerns about the deal with China adding “If we are really cunning, we can use all that to our advantage”!
The reality is that China was wide awake, while the US and Australia were caught napping. China pulled off its coup without firing a single shot!
Within days of the deal being signed, Prime Minister Morrison declared that a Chinese military base on the Solomons would be an unacceptable “red line” adding (huffily) “We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region, on our doorstep.” He quickly shifted his position, talking about “working together with our partners” and saying, “I share the same red line that the United States has when it comes to these issues”. Notably, no red line has been mentioned by the US. Indeed, nothing damaged Barack Obama’s credibility more than when he said that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. The red line was crossed. Obama did nothing. Morrison already has egg on his face. His government (particularly Dutton) shouts warnings from the rooftops but in reality, has no stick and no power, least of all military power.
In a recent piece by Fergus Hanson (a director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute- ASPI), he suggested that a solution for Australia would be to “lead a regionwide effort to ban non-resident powers from basing or deploying military personnel in the Pacific region. So, powers already present - like the US and Australia - would stay, but the region would be off-limits for new entrants.” Seriously. Is he suggesting exclusive rights to the entire Pacific Ocean for USA and Australia? ASPI is not an independent think tank. It derives much of its funding from the Australian government as well as other overseas governments, including America, and various major American defence industry corporations.
Challenges to Australia
In a sharp response to Australia, China asked “What qualifications does Australia have to draw a ‘red line’ against the Solomon Islands, and China”.
Sogavare criticised Australia’s lack of consultation with Pacific countries before announcing the AUKUS pact, saying “I learnt of the AUKUS treaty in the media. One would expect that as a member of the Pacific family, Solomon Islands and members of the Pacific should have been consulted to ensure this treaty is transparent since it will affect the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters.”
The Australian newspaper recently attacked Labor’s Deputy leader, Richard Marles over comments he made in 2017, describing Xi Jinping as a “deeply impactful President”. He also said that “While Australia may lie within a region China sees as being its domain, there is no fear that China would ever imagine forcing upon us an abandoning of our liberal democracy.” Australia may hear more from Marles in the future, and perhaps less of Dutton’s opinion that in the event of the US committing forces to defend Taiwan, “It would be inconceivable that Australia would not join the military action!”
The Australian Green Party spokesman, Jordan Steele-John described Australia’s concerns over the Solomons-China agreement as “paternalistic and actually racist” saying that China does not pose a threat to Australia and that the Greens Party has no problem with the Solomon Islands’ decision. He added, “I don’t see China as a military threat to Australia”, and “Solomon Islands is a sovereign country that is seeking to build relationships with its regional neighbours as best it can, and it is making those decisions as a sovereign country should.”
Only days ago, China announced the China-Pacific Island Countries Cooperation Centre on Climate Change to be based in China’s Shandong province, saying that China would “join hands with Pacific Island countries to create a new model of South-South cooperation on climate change”. China may well conclude further pacts with more Pacific Island Nations.
RED LINES – RED FACES