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China-Solomon Islands deal marks a power shift. US paying for reluctance in Asia-Pacific

US’ Second Island Chain strategy is now at stake as Chinese military vessels venture further afield. Warnings by Australia, Japan could become prophecies.

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Over 3,200 km north of the Solomon Islands sits the islands of Guam, the fortress of the United States’ power projection in the Pacific. But a new security deal between China and Solomon Islands can change the balance of power – putting the US and its allies in a difficult position.

The US grand strategy in Asia has swung back and forth between its maximum presence from World War II through the Vietnam war to partial retrenchment during the Nixon Doctrine and its return to Asia under Barack Obama. The US’ reluctant approach to its presence in the Pacific has left a gap for China to fill.

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Cold War to China Sam Enterprise

Guam is part of the US’ Second Island Chain defence strategy, which emerged as the primary containment approach toward China since the end of the Cold War.

On 25 July 1969, president Nixon landed in Guam to announce what would come to be known as the “Nixon Doctrine” or the “Guam Doctrine”. The doctrine stated that the United States will “encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves”. Nixon was insinuating that other internal security concerns should be dealt with by the Asian powers themselves except for a threat like nuclear war.

But in 2020, Beijing managed to poach the Solomon Islands, which led to the Manasseh Sogavare government severing ties with Taipei and establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

China’s presence in the Solomon Islands has seen private Chinese enterprises trying to acquire strategic assets for the military. China Sam Enterprise Group, a company that produces weapons and has ties with the Chinese defence ministry, has tried to acquire Tulagi islet for a potential infrastructure project. The deal raised alarm in the Solomon Islands, and was eventually blocked by the attorney general. But that didn’t stop China Sam.

Xu Changyu, the vice president of China Sam, returned with a proposal to partner with AVIC International Project Engineering, a subsidiary of a Chinese state aerospace and defence group. Xu had an idea for a new project to study the “opportunities to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’s Liberation Army Navy with exclusive rights for 75 years”.

China Sam and other private enterprises with ties to the State have tried to acquire strategic assets in the Pacific region. The project may appear to result from an entrepreneurial streak of Chinese companies, but their ties to China’s military complex should raise the alarm about acquiring these assets.

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More than an infrastructure project

The China Sam deal turned out to be more than just an infrastructure project. Following the failure of the deal, China and Solomon Islands negotiated a security pact that was signed by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Solomon Islands’ Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Jeremiah Manele.

The hand-wringing in Canberra over the security deal has been on public display over the last few days. Australia has described the potential naval base in the Solomon Islands as a “red line”. Australia knew about the deal with the Solomon Islands days before the document was leaked as a last resort to stalling it.

“China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistics replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands,” says the leaked draft document.

The leaked document doesn’t state that China will get to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands, but the agreement opens the door to a potential basing agreement in the future.

Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator, and other officials have rushed to Honiara to meet Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to increase diplomatic efforts. The US is now gearing to reopen its embassy in Honiara, which has remained closed since 1993.

“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly,” says an unnamed US State Department official about the purpose of the visit.

Even Japan has sent Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Kentaro Uesugi to the Solomon Islands “to convey Japan’s apprehension over China’s recent attempts to expand its military activities in the region”.  The hashtag “senior Japanese official visits the Solomon Islands” was the fifth trend on the Chinese social media platform Baidu.

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Reward for the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands has been rewarded for severing ties with Taiwan. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation is building “seven China Funded facilities for the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara City”. The Solomon Islands has signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, but it’s unclear which projects have been approved.

Beijing’s rationale for the security pact is the infrastructure investment and protection of the Chinese community in the Solomon Islands. The 2021 unrest in Malaita, Solomon Islands’ most populous province, saw attacks on Chinese businesses on the island and sparked debate on Chinese social media.

Three completely burnt bodies were discovered in Solomon Islands’ Chinatown. It’s unconfirmed if any Chinese nationals died in the protest. But the protests, whose ultimate origin is unknown, have given China a pretext to secure a security pact with Honiara.

Following the project, Honiara was left scrambling to bring peace to the island that saw Australia intervene to end the protest. China’s Ministry of Public Security is now training the Royal Solomon Island Police Force in riot management, including tactical equipment training.

US’ Second Island Chain strategy is now at stake as Chinese military vessels venture further afield. Only time will tell if the warnings by Australia, Japan and other countries, which have a keen eye on the Asia-Pacific, become a prophecy of China’s rise in the Solomon Islands.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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