In 2012, just as Washington was developing its Asia-Pacific “pivot”, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that “The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States”. Much has since changed, and in 2019 the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Now, ten states in Oceania have diplomatic relations with the China and four have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The Security Agreement between China and Solomon Islands
In March 2022, a draft security agreement between China and the Solomons was leaked creating alarm in Australia, New Zealand, and USA. On 19 April 2022, Beijing announced that the deal had been signed. It allows Chinese Navy ships to dock and stopover in the Solomons, and to carry out logistical operations. The agreement enables Chinese warships to be stationed only 1,600 km off the coast of Australia, a key shipping route between Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the US, and a strategic chokepoint in the Pacific.
The security deal means that the Solomon Islands will become the PRC’s top partner in the South Pacific, a sea change in the region and a significant shift in the regional balance of power. Australia’s Greg Sheridan has described the outcome as an “epic fail in Australian policy” noting that Beijing was successful, and Australia failed. Canberra knew, at least since August 2021 that the agreement was on the cards. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Peter Hartcher opined that Australia’s leaders “should hang their heads in shame”.
The deal has injected national security into Australia’s election campaign and has handed Labor a trump card. ASPI’s Peter Jennings remarked: “Australia’s defence policy, released in 2020, set three fundamental goals: to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against our interests; and respond with credible military force, when required. We have failed in all three aims.”
The Solomon Islands agreement is no surprise and may set a precedent for the wider Pacific region. China is already the biggest trading partner of the Pacific island states and the dominant player in foreign direct investment. Prime Minister Morrison has noted that other Pacific countries, including Papua New Guinea were facing the same pressure from China. Timor-Leste, located on the north-western tip of Australia has come into focus, with Jose Ramos-Horta expected to retake the presidency in current elections. Timor-Leste’s oil and gas reserves account for 90% of its GDP. If Ramos Horta wins it could see the stalled mega gas project revitalised and a new reproachment with China, potentially assisting financially.
Treating the Pacific Island nations as the “Western Backyard”
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare rejects the notion that the Pacific Islands are the “backyard of Western powers”, nor does he respond well to Australia’s Foreign Minister Payne’s patronising view that “the Pacific family is best placed to meet the security needs of the region”. Sogavare has implicitly accused Canberra of undermining his Nation’s integrity and only acting in its own national interest in pushing back against Beijing. Beijing has reacted quickly, rejecting US and Australian concerns about the deal and asking, “Does the US regard the Pacific Island country as an independent sovereign country, or as an appendage”, adding that, with no regard for the Pacific country’s sovereignty, both Australia and the US are hyping up the outdated “China threat theory”.
Australia/US Threats to the Region
The deal should come as no surprise after comments way back in June 2021 by Australia’s Defence Minister Dutton seeking greater military cooperation with the US, including talk of a new joint US Marines and ADF training brigade being based in Darwin. A Pentagon study referred to the US reducing its troops and equipment in other parts of the world to bring more to Australia and the Indo-Pacific, to counter China, with US Defence, saying that “In Australia, you’ll see new rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments, you’ll see ground forces training and increased logistics cooperation.”
Greg Sheridan notes that the Chinese “are all over the South Pacific”, making a huge effort in the region while the Australian and Western effort has been sub-optimal. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has questioned the US commitment to the Solomons and its neighbours, noting that the soon to be reopened US Embassy in the Solomon Islands has been closed for 29 years.
There was No need to Choose
How things change. Only a few short years ago, it was Australia’s policy that it did not need to choose between the US and China. In 2010 Julia Gillard became Australia’s Prime Minister. In her 2015 memoir, she said - “I wanted to paint a picture of Asia’s rise which will be a defining feature of the 21st century and how we, as government were readying Australia for this future.” She produced a White Paper - Australia in the Asian century. At its centre was Asia’s remarkable rise which had lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and would dramatically change the world. As she said, the region would become home to the biggest middle-class the world has ever known and “Australia’s remoteness from Europe had become an advantage of adjacency”. Australia’s iron ore was building the cities of Asia, particularly in China and Asia’s rise could create a new tide of prosperity in all sections of Australia’s economy. She referred to food, wine, tourism, and international education, all subsequently trashed by the succeeding Australian government acting, as China sees it, as the “mouthpiece for America’s aggression against China”.
A New Opening Up
Gillard visited China in April 2011 and, to ensure that China would not miss Australia’s enthusiasm for closer ties, 11 Ministers visited China over the succeeding 12 month period. In April 2013 she met with President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum where it became clear that China was turning a page in its relationship with Australia. Gillard emerged with a written agreement for annual leaders’ meetings between Australia and China, noting that such a relationship was enjoyed only by Germany, Britain, Russia, and the European Union. The Australian media reaction was enthusiastic with The Australian paper reporting that Gillard had scored a foreign-policy coup, signing a historic pact with China for direct annual meetings and pledges of cooperation on climate change, international aid, and direct Australia/China currency trading. The deal was described as the most significant breakthrough in the Australia China relationship since Gough Whitlam recognised China more than 40 years ago.
Australia’s Lost Opportunity – Maybe Not
Although Australia has introduced a few measures as part of its recent “Pacific Step-Up”, the Australian government’s lack of serious interest in addressing climate change undermines its standing across the region. For many Pacific island states, the risk from climate induced sea-level rise is existential. This creates real opportunities for Beijing which has accused Australia of acting like a “condescending master” of the Pacific island states.
Back to Gillard’s example. It is time for a reset of Australia’s fraught relationship with China. If Anthony Albanese pulls off a victory in the coming election and if he has the courage and skills to repair the damage to the Australia/China relationship, he will be regarded, like Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, and Gillard before him, as one of Australia’s great Labor leaders.
That would truly be in Australia’s National Interests.