We can take it as read that China's seduction of the Solomon Islands government is a diplomatic and military reverse for Australia, the United States and the Western alliance, and a major political reverse for the Coalition government. What's not so clear is whether it was a bad thing for the people of the Solomons, or for the people of other sovereign Pacific communities considering playing one superpower against another.
As loyal and sentimental Australians we must, of course, be deeply concerned by this strategic disaster, and rally around the flag, if for a purpose yet unknown. Certainly not, we hope, for an interference with Solomons sovereignty, for this is the ultimate and unforgivable sin we have criticised Russia for in Ukraine.
But any outburst of mindless patriotism should not stop the cooler-headed among us from wondering whether we brought it upon ourselves, and whether it was chickens coming home to roost. And whether, unless we mend our ways, other members of our so-called "Pacific family" might not also be tempted to add other neighbours, such as China, Japan, Indonesia and Russia, to their lists of potentially useful friends as clients or rich uncles.
The more cynical among us might wonder whether China's activism in our backyard could have anything to do with our own spiteful behaviour towards them, mostly on behalf of the United States. A well-subsidised defence, intelligence, munitions and media lobby insists that all fault in our relations with China is on their side.
It reminds us that they are (as they were when they were our best friends) a totalitarian and communist country, with an appetite for mass surveillance of its citizens on the model to which the Department of Home Affairs and the AFP aspires. But heretics - perhaps fifth columnists - among us might have a nagging feeling that some of the Chinese "retaliations" were responses to calculated ill-judged and own-goal provocations from Australia which had nothing particularly to do with our national interest, or even any intent to promote more freedom in China.
And, oh, the ingratitude of Solomon Islanders. We have twice intervened in their affairs, at their invitation, to rescue their governments from the effects of their own mismanagement, corruption, and communal violence beyond the calming capacity of their own police and armed services. On the face of it, there was nothing in it for us, and we took no advantage that ought to sustain a lasting grudge or sense of enmity.
The observer might note that the Solomons Prime Minister has voiced no resentment, even as he has tried to widen the group of "friends" upon whose help he might call.
The shame and the disappointment among Australians at foreigners invading "our" patch may even find an echo on Monday, Anzac Day, given the significance of the battles in the Guadalcanal area as a major component of the allied fightback against the Japanese during the Pacific War.
Guadalcanal was primarily an American responsibility. But our Navy was closely involved, at some considerable cost, as was our air force, and our coast watchers, and our commandos. The total cost to America of the "liberation" of the Solomons, especially in sunken ships, was equivalent to a full year of American GNP during the late 1930s. The cost to Japan, as the war moved to the Bismarck Sea, was even greater, economically as well as strategically.
By late 1943, the Americans had decided to fight alone without much help from Australia, other than as a supply base. There was mopping up to be done in New Guinea, and Irian Jaya (the then Dutch New Guinea). But the Americans decided that enemy fortresses such as Rabaul could be isolated and left to wither on the vine without the need for wholesale slaughter of their own men. After fleet actions wiped out Japanese shipping around Rabaul, and American and New Zealand airstrikes eliminated the remnants of the Japanese air force, the garrison, with more than 100,000 Japanese troops, could not be supplied. Nor could it mount offensive operations.
But Australian commanders and politicians were becoming alarmed about being frozen out of the action and the glory. The US responded by letting us "volunteer" for tasks it regarded as not necessary on military or strategic grounds. This included mopping up Japanese troops on Bougainville, an island to the north-east of Guadalcanal. They were already isolated and, left untouched, incapable of any great mischief. Many were starving.
Bougainville had about 65,000 Japanese soldiers, including Guadalcanal survivors, as well as a local population only ever incidentally remembered in the war stories. Whether of grand military use or not, attacking a hornet's nest was a hard slog, taking over 600 Australian lives. By the Japanese surrender, only about 25,000 Japanese soldiers remained, though more died from natural causes than from Australia bullets.
Alongside Bougainville was the infamous "Slot" - New Georgia Sound - on the bottom of which are scores of Japanese, American and even some Australian Navy vessels lost in fights about Japan's attempts to resupply its troops, particularly on Guadalcanal.
The people of the Solomon Islands (then a British protectorate) and the Bougainvilleans have no reason to remember the Japanese invasion, occupation or even the ultimate allied "liberation" with any affection. Many villagers were casual victims of the fighting. They had a temporary boost to their economies from "cargo" and jobs. But, at colonial insistence, Australian and American supplies were destroyed or sunk at war's end rather than handed over to the population or the colonial administration. This allowed the white folk who ran things to resume their benign neglect, without facing demands that the booty be put to good purpose.
Unlike Gallipoli, or even Kokoda and Vietnam, none of these battlefields became a place of pilgrimage, or a source of any special Australian or American sense of obligation to the traditional owners. We weren't fighting for them, or over them. And didn't they know it.
They, on the other hand, may have come to appreciate that their geography gives them a special strategic position, and not only over Australia. If they, or China, are taking advantage now, it is not that anything much ever changes about strategic realities.
The Japanese had extended their conquest to the Solomons because they believed that this, and their naval fortress headquarters at Rabaul could allow them to block American efforts to use Australia as any sort of base from which to fight back. Indeed, with control over these seas, they hoped, they could dominate access to New Zealand and Fiji as well.
In time, that fortress, and ones in the Philippines might help them prevent Australia's being a base for the war against Germany, or in Burma or India, given that the Japanese Navy had demonstrated in the early days of the war their capacity to dominate the eastern Indian Ocean as well.
From its own point of view, Australia has been very benevolent towards members of our Pacific "family", even to nations that were not former Australian colonies. We were for many years generous with aid, even if that was increasingly supplied as credit for goods in Australia, with most of the money, or the discretion never leaving our shores.
But about a decade ago, Australia began to reduce aid to about half of what it had been. While we continued to participate in regional councils, we joked about their priorities, particularly on climate change, about "busted arse" economies, and the vagaries and corruptibility of politicians. While most in our family, except Fiji from time to time, remain as democracies, most of their democratic institutions are in poor shape - indeed (slightly) worse than Australia's.
Once Canberra was full of bureaucrats, and not merely diplomats, with extensive experience in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific countries, able to use personal connections and contacts to nurture relationships. Not so much anymore, 47 years from PNG independence, and with a demolished overseas aid operation.
Australia is still the most significant educational and migration centre - but, frankly, our politicians think condescendingly of most Pacific islanders as a reserve fruit picking force, and Border Force has long regarded Pacific islanders - other than rugby players - as likely visa overstayers. Whenever most Pacific politicians want help or advice, they go first to New Zealand, a good deal more restrained in showing amused tolerance and little respect.
The sudden outburst of concern at the Solomons, and from America as much as Australia, is likely to be an economic boon to the Solomons. If we have any sense our suddenly open treasury and interest in national development will not be offered as a direct bribe to repudiate the agreement with China. That would be an insult to their pride and their sovereignty, and their own self-interest, because it is only with the Chinese there that the Solomons will find such offers of friendship, and other tokens of our esteem.
Neighbouring nations including PNG will also take note - beyond the teases already happening - of the value of flirting with nations outside the Umbrella. There's extra scope, on the one hand, for fishing deals, forestry deals, improved port operations, and trade in goods, and on the other, for aid that is more effective and adapted to domestic needs than anything on offer (now at least) from Australia or the United States.
Chinese aid, for example, has electrified Timor-Leste - and built government buildings and the presidential palace. They have put more on the ground than Australia. China has long been a more effective friend of many African countries than most nations of Europe. Its critics will accuse it of the most sinister motives, including the desire to build a dependency and debt that seriously undermine sovereignty. Perhaps they are right. But the Western aid record, and the history of Western exploitation and abuse of human rights, hardly gives other aid-giving nations, including Australia, anything to feel superior about.
Assuming the worst, China has the potential to escape from the "encirclement" of the first island chain, by which the might of the American navy is a constant menace to its sense of sovereignty and freedom of operations. That presumes, first, that the Solomons invites it to lease a naval base, as a token of a commitment to an extensive political, diplomatic, economic and cultural relationship. One imagines, or hope that Australia's persuasive talents will focus on reason rather than threats, or in restricting the scope of such a base if the Solomons proves obstinate and determined to spread their risks. Attempts to call on sentiment and emotion will probably be a waste of time because Pacific statesmen are, if anything, more transactional than their Australian counterparts.
China's strategic outlook and policies sometimes involve thinking centuries ahead. This is unlike Australia, where the long term is often a month, and where even defence and foreign affairs decisions are often non-operative within five years.
Our Australian soolers express particular concern that China might want to make a Chinese lake of the South China Sea. In the only evidence of allegedly aggressive intention to which they can point, they make much of the fortification of some nearby, but adjacent, islands. It is not hard to imagine them in a conspiracy for a new South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, under new management. Obviously, a "little Cuba in the neighbourhood", Barnaby Joyce's echo of Gough Whitlam in giving the wink to Indonesia over Timor-Leste - is part of the dread plot. Alas an invasion, least of all one "to restore order" would be very unwise in international posture terms.
If China has embarked, Japan-style, on a southern expansion doctrine, it seem to be hedging its bets. The greater part of its Belt and Road initiative seems about re-establishing a silk road to Europe - or to Iranian oil - free of any of the threats, choke points, or vulnerability to submarines, represented by sea routes. Doing this, if that is its intention, represents no threat to Australia, beyond that which might occur were China to become even more rich and prosperous, and more dependent on Australian minerals and agricultural products.
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That wouldn't mean that China was indifferent about being hemmed in by a rival superpower determined to check or control its capacity to act like any other international citizen. A logical reason, if one we cannot like and must deplore for it to look for opportunities to have friends, allies, or bases beyond its shores. All the better, from their point of view, if it gives US leaders violent conniptions.
The ABC reported that an unnamed intelligence expert had pooh-poohed a Solomon Islands comment that a Chinese base at Honiara was no more a threat to Solomons sovereignty than the presence of Pine Gap near Alice Springs was a threat to Australian sovereignty. He opined that this sounded like a line fed by sinister Chinese operatives in Beijing. It stands to reason, at least to an Australian intelligence expert, that a former Solomon Islands prime minister could not think of such an obviously correct comment by himself. That sort of insight, casual insult and reflex thinking is what has made Australian intelligence insights and predictions a matter of awe around the world, especially among our neighbours.
Disloyal Australian cynics will be calculating that even if China is allowed to proceed with its nefarious plans, it will soon become an overbearing and bossy tyrant over its suborned friends. It will excite resentment and ultimate disaster. But it is just possible that a nation that thinks in centuries might think it best to be punctiliously correct, deferential and not in the least bit threatening to its hosts. Indeed, to be perfectly genuine and useful in assisting its new friend to build better health and education infrastructure and to better develop its natural resources.
Such a cheap investment in patience would serve several ends. It might encourage some other Pacific countries to wonder whether they might get as good a deal, the better as the US and Australia try desperately to contain the pandemic. It might cause ill-judged displays of anger and outrage - perhaps belligerency - in Western countries with whom China, for good reasons or bad, is angry. Pacific leaders, even those with no specific animus against their present overbearing big brother, will also take great pleasure at our discomfort or comeuppance. Deplorable and very ungrateful, but fairly standard when regional bullies get the finger.
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