When the Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, severing 36 years of diplomatic relations, Beijing’s motive appeared to be nothing more than part of its broader strategy of diplomatically isolating Taiwan. The Solomons was the seventh country to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration, leaving it with just four diplomatic allies in the Pacific region.
However, last month, a secret draft security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China was leaked onto social media, indicating that there might be more to Beijing’s wooing of the Solomons than initially met the eye that could have profound implications for the security of not just Taiwan, but the entire region.
While the final version of the agreement remains unknown — Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has refused requests by opposition politicians to make the document public — the leaked draft allows China to send police and armed forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects” on the islands. The draft agreement also permits visits by Chinese vessels to replenish supplies, and contains a provision for the Solomon Islands government to request assistance from Chinese police or soldiers to maintain social order.
Sogavare has strenuously denied that there is any plan to allow China to construct a military base on the islands. Beijing’s foreign influence operations across Asia and Africa follows a well-rehearsed modus operandi. Commercial interests are gradually ramped up in the target nation until economic dependency is achieved, while political influence is nurtured through bribery and corruption. Elite capture combined with economic capture eventually turns the target nation into a debt-fueled supplicant, giving Beijing free rein to make whatever demands it likes — including the imposition of a military base.
Following the leak, the reaction in Washington and Canberra was somewhat muted, indicating that both nations were confident they could dissuade Sogavare from inking a deal with Beijing. This all changed on Tuesday last week, when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced at a regular news conference that the deal had been signed — just days before a US diplomatic delegation was due to arrive in the Solomons for high-level talks.
Beijing has pulled off a major strategic coup on a par with last year’s AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and the US. It is a vivid demonstration of a new “great game” between the US and China unfolding, as each power seeks to gain a dominant strategic foothold in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Solomon Islands’ strategic importance rests on the island of Tulagi, which is home to a deepwater harbor ideally suited to large warships. Tulagi served as a naval base for first British, and then Japanese forces during World War II. Japan sought control of the naval base, as it would have allowed Tokyo to control and disrupt vital shipping and communication lanes that connect North America with Australia and Asia. Beijing appears to be set on succeeding where Japan failed, albeit through more subtle means.
The establishment of a permanent naval base on Tulagi would have a direct impact on Taiwan’s security by allowing China to bypass the first island chain, and disrupt vital shipping and supply lines to Taiwan.
Taiwan has joined other nations in voicing concern over the agreement, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安) saying the deal “undermines the ‘status quo’ and the supply lines of democratic allies.”
There is significant unease among Solomon Islanders over their government’s closeness to China, which last year boiled over into riots. This provides an opening. Working in concert with other concerned nations, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, Taipei must use every tool at its disposal to empower opposition groups and turn the situation around.
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