China's security pact with the Solomons took less than a week to go from being a framework security agreement to being a nefarious Chinese plan to build a military base to threaten Australia. Defence Minister Peter Dutton says the Australian government has very real concerns about China setting up a military base on the Solomon Islands less than 2,000 km away from the Australian coast. And Prime Minister Morrison has warned it would be "a red line issue for Australia".
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin announced the agreement in Beijing on April 19, saying it would involve China cooperating with Honiara on "maintaining social order, protecting people's safety, aid, combating natural disasters and helping safeguard national security".
This is of course a long way short of planning to build a military base.
The Solomons' formal announcement came the next day. Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja had travelled to Honiara to meet with the country's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in a last-ditch effort to dissuade him from going ahead with the agreement. Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said the Morrison government should have done more, writing off the despatch of Zed Seselja as sending "a junior woodchuck at the last minute".
The subsequent hysteria has been fuelled in no small part by Prime Minister Morrison and Defence Minister Dutton who have much to gain politically by playing up the security threat from China, Penny Wong, who has much to gain from putting the boot into the government's foreign policy and the media, which sees a good story in the Morrison government's discomfiture.
As far as Washington is concerned, the south-west Pacific is Australia's responsibility and no doubt Washington insiders like Kurt Campbell (who is now the US National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator) think Australia has been asleep at the wheel. Campbell met with the Solomons Prime Minister after the pact was announced and said his delegation would also discuss "plans to open a US embassy in Honiara".
This was not an Australian intelligence failure. I understand that the AFP had reported to DFAT and the government months earlier that China had bought off the Solomon Islands Prime Minister and other senior government figures and would be signing a security treaty in the near future. The Morrison government presumably disregarded the information at the time or thought Australia didn't need to be concerned about it.
When it was all too late, the Morrison government sounded the alarm, arguing the pact had been negotiated in secret and could "undermine stability in our region". Even at that late stage it may have been possible to salvage something, with former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop commenting "that our foreign minister [Marise Payne] should be on the next plane to [the] Solomon Islands to talk with the government to see what's actually being agreed and how that impacts on the security in the region more broadly and also on Australia's security interests".
Is a Chinese military base in the Solomons likely? It's possible - but not likely.
China's main strategic priorities in the south-west Pacific are promoting its economic interests, encouraging Pacific countries not to grant diplomatic recognition or access to Taiwan, limiting US influence, and monitoring its nationals.
China maintains diplomatic relations with 10 countries in Oceania: Australia, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. Taiwan has diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu.
Both China and Taiwan provide development aid to their respective allies and bribe local officials to gain exclusive access for logging and fishing. Several countries (Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu) have switched diplomatic support from one to the other at least once.
So far, China has only one overseas military base - a PLA Navy support base in Djibouti, intended to support Chinese activities in Africa and the Middle East. It was built at a cost of $823 million AUD and has a dock capable of supporting an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarines.
However, China's overseas military footprint is miniscule compared with that of the US. The US leads an international network of powerful military allies (China has none) and has around 600 overseas military bases (compared to China's one). Geographically, China is surrounded by potential enemies and has no experience of external power projection for conflict other than across its international land borders.
Australia seems therefore to be a far cry from being militarily threatened by China - which does not even have the military capability (and some say intent) to take Taiwan by force, and it's located only 160 kilometres from the Chinese coast.
Bigger problems for Australia in the south-west Pacific are China's preparedness to pay substantial bribes to further its various interests, and the corruptibility of local officials. The Global Corruption Barometer - Pacific 2021 reports that a majority of local respondents feel corruption is a big problem in both the business sector and government, particularly among parliamentarians and officials in heads of governments offices.
As the current joke goes: "What's the capital of the Solomons?" The answer: "Bribes stashed in foreign bank accounts!"
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