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Vineet Ravindran asked: What is the China–Solomon Islands agreement? How does it benefit China when the Solomon Islands has denied any future Chinese military base?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: China’s growing influence in the South Pacific was thrust into the limelight when word leaked in March 2022 that it has negotiated a secret security agreement with the Solomon Islands, a country with which it established diplomatic ties only in 2019. Despite fervent parley by Australia and the US against this security agreement, the leader of the Solomon Islands formally announced the conclusion of this security agreement with China.

    While the text of the security agreement has not been made public, the draft agreement for security cooperation between the Solomon Islands and China was leaked on social media on 24 March 2022. As per the leaked document, the security cooperation would cover Chinese police, armed police and the military assisting the Solomon Islands with social order, disaster response, and the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send security assistance in circumstances ranging from maintaining social order to unspecified “other tasks agreed upon by the Parties”. The draft also provided for Chinese naval ships to carry out logistical replenishments in the Solomon Islands. Emphasising secrecy, the document also notes, ‘Neither party shall disclose the cooperation information to a third party.’

    The announcement of the agreement had renewed the apprehension that the deal could lead to a Chinese military presence in the Islands and increased tensions in the region. The Solomon Islands denied that the agreement would allow China to establish a naval base. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted that the agreement was only to assist the Solomon Islands with what he called ‘hard internal threats’. While the PLA Navy ships have enhanced their presence in the South Pacific, China continues to deny any intention to establish military bases in the Solomon Islands or elsewhere in the region.

    Chinese disavowal of its intention to set up a base in the South Pacific need not be taken at face value. It needs to be recalled that earlier in 2014–15, China repeatedly denied its intention of establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean, even as various reports indicated Beijing’s preparatory negotiations with Djibouti in this regard. Beijing confirmed its plan to establish a logistics base only in 2016 when China and Djibouti ‘reached consensus’ on the construction of naval facilities. The construction of the naval base began in March 2016 and it was formally opened on 1 August 2017.

    Given the secretive nature of the China–Solomon Islands agreement, it is open to interpretation if the final text is akin to the draft version. As per the draft, a threat to nearly anything linked to China—from its citizens to small businesses—could be enough to bring in Chinese troops. With the new security agreement, China and its military could establish a foothold in the island nation, which could pose a significant threat to the US and Australian strategic interests.

    Posted on 16 September 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.