The South Pacific sub region of the Indo-Pacific which serves as “the strategic front line between Asia and the Americas”[i], is undergoing many significant developments. The recent signing of the Framework Agreement for Security Cooperation between Solomon Islands and China, confirmed on 19 April 2022, took Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific nations completely by surprise. Earlier on the same day, officials from the United States (US), Australia, New Zealand and Japan had convened a meeting in Honolulu to discuss developments in the Pacific Islands, expressing concern over the proposed framework deal, and “its serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific".[ii]
Soon after the bilateral deal was announced, on 26 May 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi started his week-long tour to Pacific region, starting from Solomon Islands. On the same day, the newly appointed Australian Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong arrived in Fiji for her first bilateral visit since assuming office. What is also noticeable is that, Wang Yi’s visit to Pacific significantly comes just after the successful in-person Quad Leader’s meeting was held in Tokyo on 24 May 2022. Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit was termed by Solomon Islands as a ‘milestone’, during which the two countries agreed to build flagship projects under the BRI. As part of his 10 days tour, Wang Yi, will also be visiting Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, as well as Timor-Leste. He also met Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Henry Puna in Fiji. Wang Yi also participated in the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting in Fiji on 30 May 2022. There were media reports about China’s intention to sign region-wide agreement with ten countries, focusing on trade and security.[iii]
Meanwhile, on 26 May 2022, US welcomed Fiji as the first Pacific Island country to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), launched recently during President Joe Biden’s visit to Tokyo for the Quad summit. So clearly, the region is witnessing lot of activities and increasing competition for influence among major powers.
With increasing salience of the Indo-Pacific in the regional and global discourse, the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) lying at the crossroads of strategically significant maritime trade routes, relatively lesser developed economies, and significantly large resource rich EEZ, are attracting attention from regional and extra-regional powers. However, the most effective and disruptive engagement by far, in the region has come from China.[iv]
In recent years China’s profile in the South Pacific has been rapidly rising given the significance of the Pacific Islands in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Many of the PIC’s including Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, Niue, Solomon Islands have signed MoU with China on BRI. China’s push in the region has been aggressive, mostly with enhanced aid for number of loan-based infrastructure and connectivity projects like building of a multi-purpose port in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island, Kumul Domestic Submarine Cable Project in PNG at the cost of $24.53 million, Luganville Whraf redevelopment funded by a Chinese state-owned enterprise Shanghai Construction Group[v] and road upgrade in Tanna and Malekula in Vanuatu. Such initiatives have stoked fear among the traditional players in the region about china’s strong and growing foothold in the strategically vital neighbourhood. Media reports about a possible Chinese base in Vanuatu created large scale apprehensions in Australia. Earlier, Australia was prompt in replacing Chinese giant Huawei for construction of 4,000 kilometres high-speed undersea telecommunications cables to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
A major development in recent years has been Kiribati and Solomon Islands shifting diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China in 2019, with that now ten of fourteen PICs recognise China. Heads of States of Kiribati and Solomon Islands soon visited China and expressed willingness to support more Chinese investments in their countries.
Kiribati is important for Beijing as it houses China’s satellite tracking station which is China's only offshore satellite facility.[vi] China’s active presence in Kiribati can be a cause of apprehension to the US and its allies in the region.
Solomon Islands was in news recently when it witnessed heated political tensions, with violent protests against Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in the capital city of Honiara. Sogavare defended his ‘government’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with China’ and said that “China as an economic powerhouse provides an opportunity for us to engage and address our development needs and challenges”.[vii]
Now with the bilateral agreement with Solomon Islands, Beijing has signed its first known bilateral security agreement in the Pacific, triggering tension among the traditional regional players. The deal, regional countries feel, could ‘undermine stability in the region’. The details of the agreement are not yet clear but according to a leaked draft in media the deal entails that “China may according to its own needs and with consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visit, to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands and relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.[viii] It also mentioned that Solomon Islands may request China to send police, armed forces to maintain social order and protect lives and property.[ix] The possibility of Chinese military presence in the region has unnerved the traditional regional players.
Many sore points’ have emerged in Australia-China relations in recent years, including the issue of 5G, Canberra’s critique of Chinese meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, Covid 19 and subsequent trade war between the two. As Australia recently underwent a change in government after the federal elections on May 21 with Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Labour party taking over as the Prime Minister of Australia, now it will be crucial to see how Australia-China relations will pan out under the new government. Penny Wong’s visit to Fiji, just five days after taking over office, reflects that Pacific Islands remain a foreign policy priority under the new government as well.
The US has recently been taking the Oceania region as a whole much more seriously as reflected by recent high-level visits including first visit by a Defense Secretary to Palau in 2020, which later offered to host a US base and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Fiji – the first such high level visit in 36 years, in February 2022. US plans to reopen its embassy in Solomon Islands and is also working towards negotiations for renewing Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Palau.
Soon after the China-Solomon deal was announced, on April 22, a high-level US delegation – led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, toured the Pacific region and also visited Solomon Islands. According to White House readout, “The US delegation outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose, scope, and transparency of the agreement”.[x] It also expressed that “any attempts of de-facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, will have significant concerns and US will respond accordingly”.[xi] Reiterating US’ “commitment to the region, the delegation also highlighted willingness to collaborate with allies and protecting sovereignty of the region”.
Overall, the geopolitical environment in the region has been heating up with traditional regional players’ rising concerns about China’s economic, diplomatic and strategic advances in the region. China has been aggressively pursuing a maritime strategy, with intent to be a pre-eminent major power in both to the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand and Australia have been vocal about their concerns of China’s strategic ambitions in their immediate neighborhood and its ‘chequebook diplomacy’ with various ‘white elephants projects’. Possibilities of China’s active military presence in the region have become a cause of apprehension particularly for US, Australia and New Zealand. All of this will have implications for region’s prosperity, security and stability in the long run. Some of the PIC’s are showing that they no longer seek exclusivity in their relationship with major powers. Tension in region which was more focused on Taiwan and China earlier, is now brewing up into geostrategic competition among major powers. It is crucial to see how small island countries navigate through the changing geopolitical environment.
* Dr. Pragya Pandey, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Cleo Paskal, Strategic Overview Of Oceania, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publication/strategic-overview-oceania
[ii] Statement by NSC Spokesperson Adrienne Watson on U.S. Consultations with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand in Honolulu, APRIL 19, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/19/statement-by-nsc-spokesperson-adrienne-watson-on-u-s-consultations-with-australia-japan-and-new-zealand-in-honolulu/
[iii] New Foreign Minister Penny Wong makes pitch to Pacific nations during visit to Fiji, 27 May 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-05-27/new-foreign-minister-penny-wong-makes-pitch-to-pacific/101104730
[v] China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications, 9 April 2018
[vi] Richard K. Pruett, “A United States-Kiribati Compact of Free Association Would Yield Mutual Dividend”, Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 501, March 2020,https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/united-states-kiribati-compact-free-association-would-yield-mutual-dividends#:~:text=Kiribati%20is%20a%20Pacific%20Micronesian,Micronesia%2C%20and%20the%20Marshall%20Islands.&text=Each%20is%20now%20a%20sovereign,law%20equal%20to%20the%20Constitution.
[vii] Solomon Islands PM survives no-confidence vote after weeks of protest, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/06/solomon-islands-pm-survives-no-confidence-vote-after-weeks-of-protest
[viii] Twitter, https://twitter.com/AnnaPowles/status/1506845794728837120/photo/2
[x] Readout of Senior Administration Travel to Hawaii, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands, APRIL 22, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/22/readout-of-senior-administration-travel-to-hawaii-fiji-papua-new-guinea-and-solomon-islands/