Tulagi, a 1.5 square mile island in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands, is perhaps the most remote place on the planet to have a repeat role in world history. On 4 May 1942, Emperor Hirohito’s Japanese forces landed on Tulagi – then the capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate – to attempt to cut off Australia from American supplies.
Worse still, Australia feared invasion. These goals were ultimately thwarted in the naval and land battles of Guadalcanal. Not surprisingly, then, the news today that China has signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands has horrified the Australians. Canberra says the deal could ‘undermine stability in our region’ and Australia would ‘seek further clarity on the terms of the agreement, and its consequences for the Pacific region’.
The Australians are right to be alarmed. The treaty blows a hole in the South Pacific Forum, the mutual security system resembling Nato which comprises regional behemoths Australia and New Zealand as well as smaller players in the South Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Nauru, Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue and Papua New Guinea. Hefty Chinese bribes may have been involved: it has been claimed by the premier of the neighbouring Malaita Island that members of parliament were paid $123,000 for their support.
The security treaty is the second recent attempt by China to undermine Australia’s regional security. In 2019, China Sam Enterprise, a military technology group based in Beijing, attempted to purchase Tulagi island on a long-term lease. The purchase was eventually blocked on constitutional grounds. China’s mutual security deal envisages naval visits to the Solomons, the nearest of the South Pacific Islands to Australia. The reason given is that China needs to protect ‘the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomons’ though the license for provision and repair of Chinese naval ships is probably more pertinent to their key aims. The ultimate fear for Australia is that China’s security deal will lead to the eventual establishment of a Chinese naval base on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomons. From here China could, in the manner of Hirohito’s armed forces, seek to interdict Australia’s trade routes.
Even before the signing of the treaty, the security role of Australia and New Zealand in the Solomons has been usurped. China has started to train local police on Guadalcanal. Last year Chinese officers were even involved in baton charges against rioters to protect immigrant Chinese traders who dominate the retail sector in the capital of Honiara. In 2019, the Solomons switched its diplomatic support to China from Taiwan, which is formally the development partner of the South Pacific Forum. In return, China agreed to build a 12,000-seater stadium to host the South Pacific Games next year. Now, with the new treaty, the Solomon Islands have in effect ‘gone rogue’, as the former New Zealand defence minister Wayne Mapp put it. Predictably, the prime minister of the Solomons, Manasseh Sogavare, has said that the western response is ‘very insulting’.
This latest episode in the Solomons shows, if more evidence were needed, that China has embarked on a plan to expel western influence from Asia. China views the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and even the Arctic as its ‘backyard’. Xi Jinping is engaged in a long march to achieve his aims.
Until recently, China-Australia relations were tentatively positive. In 2012, the then Labour prime minister Julia Gillard launched a White Paper, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, which sought to balance its historically close relationship with the US since the Pacific war with a similarly close relationship with China. The balancing act was continued by her conservative successor Tony Abbott who gave Xi the rare honour of addressing both houses of parliament. ‘We have every reason to go beyond a commercial partnership to become strategic partners who have a shared vision,’ Xi declared. Australian perceptions changed when China’s increasingly aggressive strategy to control the South China Sea became clear. Canberra’s call for an international independent investigation into the origins of the Covid pandemic infuriated the Chinese Communist party. Subsequent cyber-attacks on parliament and Australian Chinese language media have been traced to China. In response to increased political hostility to China, the CCP imposed sanctions on a range of Australian exports, including coal, barley, beef, wine, cotton, lobsters and timber. About $20 billion of exports are affected. China’s trade boycott has pushed Australia closer to America. This was made clear last year when Australia signed the Aukus mutual security pact with the United States, with the UK included as a makeweight. Not surprisingly, the deal, which included the purchase of American nuclear submarines, angered China, but many of the island nations also resented Australia’s lack of consultation. Canberra’s neglect of climate change has been a further irritant.
Will other South Pacific Islands follow the Solomons? Many have grievances, particularly regarding doubts raised about the efficacy of Australian aid to the region. The Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Micronesia and Nauru have all announced their intention to quit the Forum. Britain, for its part, has shown almost no interest in the Solomons debacle. As the Australian prime minister Robert Menzies explained in 1939: ‘What Britain calls the Far East is to us the Near North.’ Bearing mind that the UK is distracted by the war in Ukraine and can offer little in help in the containment of Chinese expansion in the South Pacific, Britain’s continuing constitutional role in the region is called into question. Should the Queen of England remain the Queen of the Solomons Islands, particularly given that it is now allied with China?
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