Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-08)
Conclusion of a Security Agreement between Solomon Islands and China

Shigeru Toyama (Former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to Solomon Islands; Director, Japanese Secretariat of Japan-China Joint History Study)
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JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-08)

Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

Solomon Islands, located in the South Pacific, severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 and established diplomatic relations with China. Interactions between the two countries have rapidly progressed in various fields since then, and a "security agreement" was concluded between the two countries in April 2022. Other countries with interests in the region such as Japan, the United States, Australia and New Zealand (hereinafter referred to as "the interested countries") expressed strong concern about this move as leading to possible establishment of a foothold of China's military advance.

1. Tug-of-war over the agreement

In late March, it was reported in the Australian media that a security agreement had been provisionally signed between Solomon Islands and China. The United States immediately responded and urged the Solomon Islands government to reconsider the agreement. On April 19, however, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that a "security agreement" had been officially signed with Solomon Islands. Although the details of the agreement were not disclosed, the spokesman explained that the parties to the agreement would "cooperate in maintaining social order, protecting people's lives and property, providing humanitarian aid, preventing disasters, etc." and that the agreement would "complement rather than contradict Solomon Islands' existing multilateral agreements". Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare also said, "The agreement is exclusively domestic and not intended for third countries. There will be no Chinese military facilities in Solomon Islands."

Although the above explanation did not specify cooperation in military or police matters, "maintaining social order" suggests that such areas are included in the agreement, and relevant press reports revealed that the agreement allows China to send warships and security forces at the request of Solomon Islands.

In response to these developments, the interested countries expressed strong concern that the conclusion of this agreement could serve as a major steppingstone for China's advance into the South Pacific region. Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and other US officials visited Solomon Islands on April 22 and met with Prime Minister Sogavare. According to the White House, the United States expressed apprehension about the purpose, scope and transparency of the security agreement and mentioned the possibility of taking countermeasures if Chinese troops are effectively stationed in Solomon Islands. The Japanese government also dispatched Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Kentaro Uesugi to the country, and conveyed in a courtesy call paid on Prime Minister Sogavare and a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade that it was monitoring the situation with concern.

2. Concerns of interested countries

China has vehemently opposed these moves, stating that the interested countries are overreacting and blowing the matter all out of proportion. However, the interested countries are deeply concerned about the possibility that China will rapidly expand its presence in the South Pacific region, including in the military arena, through this agreement. Solomon Islands has a land area of approximately 30,000 square kilometers, a population of approximately 700,000, and an economy that is at the level of the least developed countries (LDC). Geopolitically, however, Solomon Islands consists of around 1,000 islands of various sizes, with a large territorial sea and exclusive economic zone compared to its land area. The Solomon Islands archipelago is part of an important sea lane connecting Australia, the United States and Japan. In the South Pacific, China has already established diplomatic relations with countries such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, and has cooperative security relations with all of them. It is highly likely that China's expansion into the Pacific will be further accelerated by strengthening ties with Solomon Islands.

Currently, the capital Honiara has the only port in Solomon Islands where 5000-ton-class vessels such as cruisers can berth. Australian and New Zealand naval vessels, as well as Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels, have called at the port for friendly visits. It is easy to imagine that Chinese naval vessels will call at the port in a similar manner in future to highlight their presence.

However, Solomon Islands itself does not have a security risk in relation to neighboring countries. Its closest relationship is with Papua New Guinea. Although there are issues such as illegal entry and cross-border smuggling, the relationship between the two countries is basically good and there are no security concerns. Because of this international environment, Solomon Islands has no military establishment, and small old-fashioned patrol boats provided by Australia help ensure its maritime security, including fishing control.

3. Domestic security concerns

As mentioned above, Prime Minister Sogavare explained that the purpose of this agreement is solely to maintain social order in the country. What are the domestic security problems in Solomon Islands? The security situation in Solomon Islands has been basically favorable in recent years, but only about 20 years ago an internal conflict erupted that proved so serious that Australia called Solomon Islands a "failed state". Traditional Solomon Islands society is essentially a tribal society with people having different ethnic roots and cultures, and there is little basis for the spontaneous formation of a nation-state. Even in 1978, there was no strong demand for independence among the local residents, and its independence could be described as resulting from the abandonment of the islands by Britain as the suzerain power. After independence, the movement of people within the country increased rapidly, and a large number of other islanders moved to Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located. The occupation of land on Guadalcanal by people from the populous Malaita Island in particular increased friction with the local islanders. This escalated into an ethnic conflict known as "The Tensions," which intensified in 1998. When the conflict became protracted and the Solomon Islands government lost the ability to restore public order, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) comprising police and military forces from Australia, New Zealand and other countries were dispatched beginning in 2003. A total of 2000 military and police personnel were stationed in Solomon Islands to maintain security. The unit was thereafter gradually downsized and its mission ended in June 2017. During this period, Australia in particular stepped up its financial support and administrative guidance.

As a result of these efforts, security in Solomon Islands has greatly improved, and there have been no violent crimes or terrorist incidents in recent years. However, the basic structure of Solomon Islands society includes (1) the aforementioned friction between Malaita and Guadalcanal, (2) political strife between Prime Minister Sogavare and the anti-Sogavare faction, and (3) destabilizing factors such as anti-Chinese sentiment among the people. These factors are intricately intertwined, sometimes causing social disturbances. In the past, the Chinatown in Honiara has been attacked by mobs, causing human and material damage. Recently, large-scale demonstrations demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sogavare, who has been actively strengthening relations with China, took place in Honiara in November 2021, and arson and looting broke out in the Chinatown district. At the request of the Solomon Islands government, a military police unit led by Australia was dispatched to quell the violence. One month later, however, China announced that it would provide Solomon Islands with helmets, batons, and other security equipment, and that a Chinese police advisory group would be dispatched. There are several factors behind the people's anti-Chinese sentiment. For one thing, overseas Chinese dominate the Solomon Islands' economy, and many Solomon Islanders feel they are being exploited by China. There are also strong concerns about China as an authoritarian hegemonic state. Furthermore, some politicians have long received "political funds" from China, and it is generally believed that this has become a great hotbed for unfair preferential treatment favoring Chinese business and for political corruption. Prime Minister Sogavare and his relatives are considered to have particularly strong ties with China and, when the anti-Sogavare movement gains momentum, overseas Chinese are likely to become targets for attacks.

The number of Chinese residents in Solomon Islands is estimated at three to four thousand. Food products and daily necessities that are essential to people's daily lives are often sold in Chinese stores. Sea cucumbers and other seafood as well as lumber are also exported to China. The possibility cannot be ruled out that China will dispatch a certain number of military and police personnel in the name of protecting Chinese residents. China's armed police force is under the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, and a variety of security information is shared with the PLA. In 2017, the "National Intelligence Law of the People's Republic of China" was enacted, making it mandatory for Chinese citizens and companies to participate in intelligence activities.

4. Delicate relations with the United States and Australia

(1) United States

During the Pacific War, the British Solomon Islands Protectorate participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal alongside the United States as a member of the Allies. Following Solomon Islands' independence in 1978, the United States opened an office of its embassy, with the US ambassador to Papua New Guinea also accredited to Solomon Islands, but it was closed in 1993 as part of the Clinton administration's administrative reforms. Since then, a US civilian living in Solomon Islands for a long time have been entrusted with consular services in Solomon Islands. Relations between the two countries were thus relatively weak for nearly 30 years but, when Solomon Islands' possible severance of relations with Taiwan came to light in 2019, the United States strongly urged Solomon Islands to maintain relations with Taiwan. It is undeniable that Solomon Islands had strong antipathy against this pressure as reflecting an overbearing attitude only considerate of the self-interest of the United States. In recent years, the United States has been accelerating its approaches to the Solomon Islands. In the recent visit to Solomon Islands by NSC Coordinator Kurt Campbell, the United States proposed the establishment of a strategic dialogue between the two countries and the provision of civilian assistance, including measures to combat COVID-19, as well as the early realization of the reopening of the US embassy.

(2) Australia

Australia has been by far the largest and most relevant aid partner for Solomon Islands politically, economically and otherwise. The amount of ODA provided by Australia stands out at 119.6 relative to New Zealand's 22.2, the US' 21.4 and Japan's 8.2 (unit: US$1 million, 2019, DAC). Australia not only supplies ODA but also dispatches advisors and experts to serve as senior officials in major government offices. In many cases, Australians also have effective control in the management of state-owned companies such as electric power and hydroelectric power utilities. Through these means, Australia continues to provide assistance to Solomon Islands in a variety of areas. However, from Solomon Islands' point of view, the vast majority of the aid is in fact directed towards exorbitant remunerations for Australians, leaving little that directly benefits Solomon Islands. In the past, there were even cases in which Australia was seen to have intervened in the selection of Solomon Islands' prime minister. Their bilateral relations, therefore, have sensitive aspects.

Prime Minister Sogavare ardently wanted cooperation from China because strengthening domestic security is a matter directly linked to his political career. On the other hand, there is no cause for concern in terms of national defense, and he does not want his country's presence to become a focal point in the struggle for hegemony or a pawn in security disputes among major powers. Nevertheless, the fact that Prime Minister Sogavare has concluded a security agreement with China, while fully aware of the friction with interested countries, suggests that he wants to use the tug of war between China and the interested countries to extract more aid from all of them.

5. Japan and Solomon Islands

Japan had invaded the Solomons during the Battle of Guadalcanal early in the Pacific War but, when the islands gained their independence, Japan immediately established diplomatic relations, and over the past 40 years Japan has developed a cooperative relationship with Solomon Islands. In bilateral relations, Solomon Islands highly values Japan's ODA-centered assistance. On a private-sector basis, Solomon Taiyo, a bonito and tuna cannery financed by Taiyo Fishery (now Maruha Nichiro), was established in 1971. On the other hand, both the public and private sectors of Solomon Islands have provided dedicated cooperation for collecting the remains of the war dead involved in the Battle of Guadalcanal and holding memorial services. In addition, Japan has always enjoyed support from Solomon Islands in its activities in the international community. In recent years, Japan has received votes of support from Solomon Islands in proposals made by Japan at the 67th Meeting of the International Whaling Commission in September 2018, during the election for Director-General of the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific in October 2018, and in the voting for Osaka-Kansai Expo 2025. As is well known, China's presence in various parts of the world has been rapidly expanding over the past several years, and relations between Solomon Islands and China in public and private sectors are expected to steadily strengthen. Under these circumstances, if Japan and China end up competing in activities in the international community, Solomon Islands might well end up supporting China. For Japan to maintain positive and mutually beneficial relations with Solomon Islands, it will need to strengthen collaboration with the United States, Australia and other interested countries, and promote cooperation in its bilateral aid that meets the needs of Solomon Islands in terms of both the quality and quantity.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on May 12, 2022.)