From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Solomon Islands
Mains level : Chinese expansion in Pacific
A recent leaked document has revealed that the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific has reached a deal with China. This has raised alarms in Washington and Canberra.
Where is the Solomon Islands located?
- The Solomon Islands is a sovereign country consisting of six major islands and over 900 smaller islands in Oceania, to the east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu.
- Its capital, Honiara, is located on the largest island, Guadalcanal.
- It is part of the ethnically Melanesian group of islands in the Pacific and lies between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
- The country takes its name from the Solomon Islands archipelago, which is a collection of Melanesian islands that also includes the North Solomon Islands (a part of Papua New Guinea).
- It excludes outlying islands, such as the Santa Cruz Islands and Rennell and Bellona.
Quick recap of its past
- The islands, which were initially controlled by the British Empire during the colonial era, went through the hands of Germany and Japan.
- It then went back to the UK after the Americans took over the islands from the Japanese during World War II.
- The islands became independent in 1978 to become a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown, with a parliamentary system of government.
- Nevertheless, its inability to manage domestic ethnic conflicts led to close security relations with Australia, which is the traditional first responder to any crisis in the South Pacific.
What are the contents of the proposed deal?
- The Framework Agreement has the potential to disturb the established security mechanisms in the South Pacific region.
- The document explicitly enables Beijing to send its “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to the islands on the latter government’s request, or if the former sees that the safety of its projects and personnel in the islands are at risk.
- The document also provides for China’s naval vessels to utilise the islands for logistics support.
- There have been speculations in the wake of this revelation that China might be building its next overseas naval base in Solomon Islands after Djibouti.
What is the rationale for the Solomon Islands’ increasing proximity to China?
- The Solomon Islands had cultivated strong ties with Taiwan, which ended with the emergence of the current government in Honiara.
- In 2019, the regime change switched Taiwan for China.
- This was supposedly after Beijing offered half a billion US dollars in financial aid, roughly five times what Taiwan spent on the islands in the past two decades.
- It has been alleged by the pro-Taiwan Opposition that the incumbent government has been bribed by China.
Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?
- Isolating Taiwan: The Solomon Islands was one among the six Pacific island states which had official bilateral relations with Taiwan.
- Supporter in UN: The small Pacific island states act as potential vote banks for mobilising support for the great powers in international fora like the United Nations.
- Larger EEZ: These states have disproportionately large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones when compared to their small sizes.
- Natural resources: Solomon Islands, in particular, have significant reserves of timber and mineral resources, along with fisheries.
- Countering US: But more importantly, they are strategically located for China to insert itself between America’s military bases in the Pacific islands and Australia.
What does this mean for the established geopolitical configuration in the region?
- Diminishing western influence: The Pacific islands, in the post-World War II scenario, were exclusively under the spheres of influence of the Western powers, in particular the US, UK, France and Australia and New Zealand.
- Inserting into western hegemony: All of them have territorial possessions in the region, with the three nuclear powers among them having used the region as a nuclear weapons testing ground.
- Shifting of dependencies: The smaller island nations of the region are heavily dependent on them, especially Australia as it is a resident power.
Damage control by West
- Australia has reacted with boosted finances, and by extending its current security mission till 2023 when the islands will host the Pacific Games.
- The US has responded by considering reopening its embassy in Honiara after a long 29-year gap.
- New Zealand has shed its typical restraint about China and has criticised it for attempting to militarise the Pacific islands.
Chinese response to Indo-Pacific
- It is to be noted that China’s rise in the South Pacific is not without opposition.
- AUKUS is a recent example of how the established powers are reacting; although, to what extent they can mobilize individual governments against China is questionable.
- Significant discontent has been brewing within and among the Pacific island states against China’s economic inroads and its adverse impact on their vulnerable economic and political systems.