The Solomon Islands has confirmed that it is drafting a security deal with China after leaked documents indicated that a Chinese military base might be set up just northeast of Australia.
The leaked documents, described as a framework agreement on security cooperation, highlighted that the Solomon Islands could ask China to send armed police and military personnel to quell unrest, among other missions, including disaster response. It also said that the Solomon Islands could allow Chinese naval ships to dock in the country, and protect the safety of Chinese residents and major projects.
The potential deal comes as the US, Australia, Japan, India and other Indo-Pacific actors have become increasingly concerned about China boosting its maritime capabilities, its militarization of the South China Sea, and its increasing footprints in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
Mao Zedong (毛澤東) claimed that the People’s Republic of China would never participate in foreign military exercises and would never have bases abroad.
Abandoning his directive, the Chinese military in 2002 began participating in bilateral and multilateral exercises, and in 2017 established an overseas military outpost in Djibouti, its first in the Indian Ocean region. Its Djibouti base is critical for securing China’s trade and energy security, and is used by Chinese peacekeeping forces in Africa. It is also a vital point of contact for Chinese navy vessels to refuel while conducting anti-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean.
China’s 2015 defense white paper directed the Chinese armed forces to participate in regional and international security cooperation, and to protect China’s overseas interests.
This would require the modernization of the navy, and bases in and logistics agreements with multiple countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese military still lacks seaborne and airborne refueling capabilities, stretching its logistics lines and limiting its overseas operations. The military is aware of this shortcoming, and is working toward expanding and improving its far sea capabilities by commissioning advanced long-range destroyers, frigates, aircraft carriers, replenishment and refueling ships, medium and heavy-lift long-distance aircraft, and refueling aircraft.
Similarly, it could also establish multiple military outposts in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, to overcome its overseas operational limitations.
Last year’s edition of the US Department of Defense’s annual report on China’s military power claims that China has probably considered Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan as locations for military bases or military logistics facilities.
Furthermore, the known focus areas of Chinese military planning also include the sea lines of communication from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa and Pacific island countries.
However, such military outposts would not only secure the country’s trade and energy requirements, but also enable its armed forces to have a permanent presence in the region.
For instance, the Djibouti outpost helps the military gain invaluable operational experience in the Indian Ocean. This is vital for improving the operational capabilities of advanced vessels such as submarines, underwater drones, aircraft carriers and destroyers in the far seas, which are essential for establishing air and water superiority during a conflict.
The leaked documents revealed that China could send military and paramilitary personnel at Honiara’s request, but it could also dock ships for logistics replenishments.
As past experiences have highlighted, this could be the first step toward granting a permanent presence to Beijing in the southern Pacific. China’s expanding military footprint threatens the regional balance as it brings its troops to Australia and New Zealand’s doorstep.
Furthermore, if constructed, the military outpost would also help China dock its naval vessels outside the first and second island chains, relatively close to the US territory of Guam.
Finally, such deployment also undercuts the regional influence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as China has pulled another state into its orbit, despite Quad member Australia’s effort since 2018 to “re-engage with its Pacific family.”
For now, claims that China might impose a maritime blockade and interdict supply lines using a Solomon Islands base, similar to events in World War II, are extremely far-fetched.
However, if worked out, such an agreement would show the ascendance of Chinese influence, and the attractiveness of Chinese civilian and military investments for smaller Indo-Pacific actors. If ratified, the deal would bring enormous geostrategic leverage to China and should alarm the Quad countries, especially Australia, about the rising Chinese strategic challenge and increasing sphere of influence in its backyard.
Suyash Desai is a researcher specializing in Chinese security and foreign policies. He is studying Mandarin at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung.
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