Foreign Policy Watch: India-Pacific Island Nations

Places in news: Solomon Islands

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Solomon Islands

Mains level : Chinese expansion in Pacific

solomon

Solomon Islands PM has assured Australia that his nation will not allow a Chinese military presence in its territory.

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.

How did China enter the picture?

  • Earlier this year, the Solomon Islands established a security agreement with China, saying it needed Beijing’s assistance with its domestic security situation.
  • But the announcement had rattled the west, esp. the US, Australia and others in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • The concerns were that the agreement could potentially lead to a Chinese military base on the island nation and a gain in power-projection capabilities.
  • At that time, following intense scrutiny, the Solomon Islands had denied that the agreement would allow China to establish a naval base.
  • The Island insisted that the agreement was only to assist the Solomon Islands with what he called “hard internal threats”.

What is the Solomon Islands’ stance?

  • The government has asked all partner countries with plans to conduct naval visits or patrols to put them on hold until a revised national mechanism is in place.
  • The revised national mechanism applied to all foreign vessels seeking access to the country’s ports.
  • The nation wanted to build up its own naval capacity.
  • It has some unfortunate experiences of foreign naval vessels entering its waters without any diplomatic clearance.

What is behind China’s growing influence in the region?

  • There is no dispute that China has been rapidly increasing its presence and influence in the region for over three decades, particularly in the South Pacific.
  • Certainly Beijing views the Pacific Island region as an important component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • Specifically, it sees the region as a critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road, which connects Asia with Central and South America.

Concerns of the West

  • The United States and its regional allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, are concerned that the China-Solomon Islands security pact allows Chinese naval vessels to replenish there.
  • That could open the door to a Chinese naval base, which would significantly extend China’s military reach in the South Pacific.”
  • It is likely that this security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has been driven by, what the CFR calls, Beijing’s “sense of vulnerability” in the region.

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.

 

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