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WELLINGTON, New Zealand: A security alliance between China and the Solomon Islands has sent shivering across the South Pacific, with many worried that it could put a halt to large-scale military build-up or put Western hostility to the deal in China’s hands. can play.
What is most unclear is the extent of China’s ambitions.
A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also close to Guam, with its vast US military bases.
China so far only operates one approved foreign military base, which is in the impoverished but strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. Many believe that China’s People’s Liberation Army is busy establishing a foreign military network, even though they do not use the term “base”.
The Solomon Islands government says a draft of its agreement with China was initialed last week and will be “cleaned up” and signed soon.
The draft, which was leaked online, says that Chinese warships may stop at Solomon for a “replenishment of logistical support” and that China will send Solomon to police, military personnel and other armed forces “to help maintain social order”. can send forces.
The draft agreement specifies what information should be disclosed to China about joint security arrangements, including media briefings.
The Solomon Islands, home to nearly 700,000 people, switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 – a move rejected by the most populous province and a contributing factor to the riots last November.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded in February by saying that Washington would reopen its embassy in the capital Honiara, which has been closed since 1993, before China “firmly embedded” its influence in the Solomons. be extended.
Both China and Solomon have strongly denied that the new agreement would lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base. The Solomon Islands government said the deal was necessary because of its limited ability to deal with a violent insurgency similar to that in November.
The government said this week, “The country is ruined by the repetition of internal violence over the years.”
But Australia, New Zealand and the US have expressed concerns about the deal, with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing it as “severely concerning”.
David Panuelo, the president of nearby Micronesia, which has close ties to the US, wrote an emotional letter to the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogaware, asking him to reconsider the agreement.
He noted that both Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlefields during World War II, which were mired in the conflict of the Great Powers.
“I believe that none of us wants to see a conflict of that scope or scale ever again, and especially in our own backyards,” Panuello wrote.
But the Solomon Islands’ police minister mocked Panuelo’s concerns on social media, saying he should be more concerned about his own atoll being swallowed by the ocean due to climate change.
Sogaware has similarly dismissed foreign criticism of the security agreement as outrageous, while labeling the leakers of the draft as “crazy”.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the agreement was aimed at maintaining the safety of people’s lives and property, and “has no military indication”, adding that media speculation on the base’s possible development was unfounded.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said China has been pursuing such a port facility for some five years because it aims to expand its naval presence in the South Pacific as part of Beijing’s long game. is to expand. Trying to become the dominant regional power.
“If they want to break into the Pacific, at some point they’re going to need the logistics capability to support that presence,” Graham said. “We’re not talking about war plans here; it’s really about increasing their presence and influence.”
Unlike the base in Djibouti, where China has commercial interests in the region to defend itself, Graham said any operation in the Solomon Islands would be less important.
“It’s quite a subtle and interesting geopolitical game that has emerged in the South Pacific,” he said. “And I think the Chinese have been very successful, if you like, in beating the United States and Australia in an influence competition, not a military contest.”
The Chinese base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. China does not call it a base, but a support facility for its naval operations to prevent piracy in the Gulf of Aden and for its African peacekeeping missions. It has a 400 m (1,300 ft) runway and a pier large enough to dock either of China’s two operating aircraft carriers.
The base, with 2,000 personnel, allows China to position supplies, troops and equipment in the strategically important area, as well as keep an eye on US forces stationed nearby.
Prominent among other potential base candidates is Cambodia, whose authoritarian leader Hun Sen has long been a trusted Chinese ally and who has reportedly signed a secret 2019 agreement allowing the establishment of a Chinese base.
China is dredging the port at Riem Naval Base to allow any larger ships from Cambodia to dock, and building new infrastructure to replace the US-built naval strategic headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia will establish a chokepoint in the Gulf of Thailand close to the crucial Malacca Strait.
China has also funded projects in Pakistan’s Gwadar, another close ally, and Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure lending has forced the government to hand over control of the southern port of Hambantota.
An alleged Chinese push to establish a base in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea has been particularly interesting. This would give China a presence on the Atlantic along the east coast of the continental United States, an important African oil-producing region.
“China has seized opportunities to expand its influence at a time when the US and other countries in the Pacific islands are not as economically engaged,” said Elizabeth Vishnik, a Chinese foreign policy expert at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “
About 80 years ago in the Solomon Islands, the US military began its famous “island hopping” campaign of World War II to retake the Pacific islands one by one from Imperial Japanese forces. After some six months of fierce fighting, it successfully conquered the main island of Guadalcanal in February 1943.
Today, the Solomon Islands would give China the potential to intervene in US naval operations in an area that could be critical in the event of conflict in Taiwan or the South and East China Seas.
Australia’s head of joint operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, said if Chinese naval ships were able to operate from the Solomon Islands it would “change calculus.”
“They’re pretty close to mainland Australia, obviously, and that will change the way we do our day-to-day operations, especially in the air and at sea,” he told reporters.
But Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said he thinks leaders have overreacted to the agreement, perhaps in the case of Australia as an election is nearing.
“It’s obviously very animated and very worrying to everyone in the West,” Pryke said. “But I don’t think it obviously changes things on the ground.”
He said the deal could be seen as a first step by China to establish a base, but that many more steps would need to be taken before that could happen.
“I think alarmism has strengthened China’s hand by pushing the Solomon Islands to a corner,” Pryke said. “And they have reacted the way I imagine many countries would react to this external pressure – by pushing back, and digging their heels.”

Nation World News Desk
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