It’s like this: Imagine China signing a secretive security deal with the Maldives, a group of islands, many uninhabited, located close to Indian shores.
The deal allows Beijing to deploy Chinese police and military officers to protect its companies and personnel on the islands; it also allows Chinese ships, sailing far and away from its own shores on a critical sea lane of trade, to refuel; the deal goes through because the government in Male, the capital city, is pro-Beijing though many in the political class and citizens are not in favour; the deal goes through even though New Delhi, until now, had been the “net security provider” for the islands and pumped in millions, helping to build infrastructure and public works projects.
China, for the first time — Male and Beijing say it doesn’t target any third country — has a base in the Indian Ocean, and the choice to militarise it when, not if, required.
New Delhi wouldn’t be pleased.
There’s no such deal between the two countries, but that’s essentially what just happened between China and Solomon Islands — around 900 islands with around 700,000 people in the Oceania region of the South Pacific — which have signed a security deal shrouded in mist.
Australia, the net security provider roughly 2000 km away, isn’t pleased.
Neither is the United States (US), which is heavily invested in the region.
The deal between Beijing and Honiara — the first such deal China has signed in the Pacific region — not only has Australia and New Zealand fuming and fretful, but it has also sparked concern and a flurry of diplomatic outreach activities from other western countries including the US.
The basic concerns are these: China could build a naval base on one of the islands in the archipelago, which could then be used to project its naval power in the region.
Also, the agreement will have a bearing on both the Quad and the AUKUS with the countries involved — India, the US, Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and Japan — possibly having to pump in more resources and time to counter the challenge in the years ahead.
The US’s Indo-Pacific pivot just got more complicated.
The deal, championed by Solomon Island Prime Minister (PM) Manasseh Sogavare, has also disappointed regional countries, as New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern told BBC, because an agreement already exists between Pacific Island forum members called the “Biketawa” declaration, focused on members looking after their own security needs together as a region.
What’s adding to the sense of unease is the opacity of the agreement.
“Let me say this again. Foreign ministers of China (Wang Yi) and Solomon Islands (Jeremiah Manele) officially signed the inter-governmental framework agreement on security cooperation between the two countries the other day.”
“The other day”.
That was how foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, talked about the agreement when asked for details last week.
Nothing official is available yet other than a leaked version of the agreement,
The deal shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise: For one, the Solomon Islands switched its allegiance from Taiwan – a functional democracy which Beijing considers a renegade region — to China barely months after Australian PM Scott Morrison’s visit to the island in 2019.
Ironically, it was his first visit to a foreign country after becoming PM.
The tide, however, had turned.
Soon after, PM Sogavare visited China and met the top leadership including President Xi Jinping.
Xi, among other things, told Sogavare: “The Solomon Islands is located in the southward extension of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road… the Solomon Islands is welcome to join the big family of China-Pacific Island countries for cooperation”.
Australia’s national broadcaster ABC News has called the signing of the deal as Xi having “poked Morrison squarely in the eye”.
The secretive agreement has triggered worried responses and a buzz of activity with western diplomats heading to the far-flung islands.
Beijing-based defence watchers say it’s a game-changer in terms of China’s expanding naval power and what the country intends to do in the years ahead.
“Japan occupied strategic islands in the South Pacific after WWI, taking over former German colonial territories. In WW2, these island bases formed strategic jump-off points for Japanese Imperial forces to cut off Australia and the US: The resulting tussle between the Japanese Empire and the Allies (US, UK and Australia/NZ) led to the eventual Battle of Coral Sea and the Guadalcanal campaigns,” a defence expert from a south-Asian country said.
“China probably shares the same outlook: They would need bases in the South Pacific for them to break out of the first island chain and to cut off supply and shipping routes between Australia and the US, and even beyond, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.”
The People’s Liberation Army’ (PLA) navy’s plan to gradually expand influence across maritime regions including in the Pacific via the “island chain” theory – which was first formalised by the US navy — has been in the works for decades.
The long-term plans for the PLA navy were drawn in the 1980s under naval commander Liu Huaqing and the political and military leadership of Deng Xiaoping.
In 1988, Deng and Liu set three governing goals for the development of the PLAN, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).
“By 2000 China would develop naval forces sufficient to defend its maritime interests out to the First Island Chain, which runs from the Kuril Islands through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, down through the Philippines, and ends in the Indonesian archipelago,” CJ Jenner, a senior research fellow from the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies wrote in an analysis published by AMTI in 2019.
Jenner added that, according to the Deng-Liu governing goals, by 2020 China’s maritime interests would be secured by the PLAN’s capability to command the “near seas” out to the Second Island Chain, which runs from the Kurils through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then on through the Mariana Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago with the likely embrace of Java, Singapore, and the Malacca Straits.
“By the time the PRC celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2049, the PLAN would be capable of deploying aircraft carriers with battle fleets and realising China’s national interests on a global basis.”
For the PLA, it seems to be working according to plan.
The developments in the Solomon Islands turned distinctly odd last month when Beijing shipped crates of the China-made QBZ-95 assault rifles to Honiara to be used by the islands’ police force for training.
As it turned out, they were plastic replicas. This time.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that
The views expressed are personal