International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The Pacific

1 April 2022

Allowing China to establish a base in the South Pacific is an embarrassing failure of Australian engagement with its neighbours, William Stoltz writes.

Denying a foreign adversary a military base in the South Pacific is security 101 for Australia. It is a basic requirement for maintaining Australia’s territorial security, written into the DNA of generations of Australian strategists as the contingency that must be avoided above all else.

Whether it be in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, or New Caledonia, a military base in the South Pacific gives an adversary the ability to cut off Australia’s east coast from the maritime supply lines which deliver the vast majority of the goods brought into Australia.

It also allows them, in a time of war, to bombard Australian infrastructure and population centres.

Fear of an encamped Pacific adversary contributed to Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s decision that Australia needed its own blue water navy in 1903. Despite the power of the British Royal Navy, French, German, Japanese, and Russian navies steamed Australia’s neighbourhood, and Australia could easily be dislocated from the world.

With the Solomon Islands Government looking set to give China basing access under a new security partnership agreement, the Australian Government now faces that fear becoming reality.

China’s interest in Solomon Islands today is different from the past because of Australia’s modern significance as a staging area for American power in the Indo-Pacific. Facilities in northern Australia can host American marines, long-range bombers, surface vessels, and will eventually see regular rotations of submarines.

More on this: China’s military engagement with Pacific Island countries

In any war with China, Australia would be a pivotal location for America to base its forces, as was the case in the Second World War. Cutting off Australia therefore presents China with the opportunity to strangle America’s ability to project force in the region.

Even outside of wartime, a base in Solomon Islands would also allow China to monitor and interfere with Australian and American targets across the region, including on Australia’s north and east coasts.

For these reasons, the inking of this the basing deal with China by the Solomon Islands is an embarrassing failure of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific and a security crisis. Decades of foreign aid, law enforcement support, capacity building, and diplomatic work should have ensured that this would not happen.

Of course, the Solomon Islands Government is entitled to make its own foreign policy choices, but it should have been clear that Australia would not regard this choice as the act of a friend.

Indeed, that this decision appears to being taken seriously begs the question of exactly what Australian officials have been doing all these years to make this known to their Solomon Islands counterparts.

More on this: Australia and security in the Pacific Islands

Australia has always sought to be the security partner of choice for countries in the South Pacific and its allies have looked to Australia to lead in securing and stabilising the region. It should have been unambiguous to the Solomon Islands Government that this means Australia expects to be first in the provision of security and law enforcement support and, at a minimum, consulted when other countries want to step in.

Australia has long supported Solomon Islands with foreign aid, including an additional $250 million commitment announced in 2019, and the 13-year RAMSI mission to stabilise the country on which Australia expended over two billion dollars.

Does the Solomon Islands Government expect that such support can continue while they simultaneously give China a foothold that undermines Australia’s security? Perhaps they do, in which case Australia’s diplomats have failed to adequately insist on the exclusivity of the relationship. Or perhaps the Australian Government hasn’t been listening and hasn’t provided the kind of security and development support Solomon Islands actually wants, in turn generating the need for alternatives.

Or, and perhaps most concerningly, Australian intelligence services have failed to detect and respond to efforts by China to induce and coerce politicians and officials in Solomon Islands into supporting this move.

What is most likely is a combination of all of these factors.

For now, in addition to deploying all manner of carrots and sticks to stop this basing agreement, the Australian Government must take stock, and urgently examine how its diplomatic and security agencies ever allowed the situation to get to this.

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One Response

  1. Jeremy Dawson says:

    “but it should have been clear that Australia would not regard this
    choice as the act of a friend.”

    Maybe it was clear. Does that mean they should not make that choice?

    “the question of exactly what Australian officials have been doing all
    these years to make this known to their Solomon Islands counterparts.”

    Maybe they have made it known. Is there any reason to suspect that
    they haven’t, other than an expectation that the Solomon Islands will
    do what Australia wants?

    “It should have been unambiguous to the Solomon Islands Government
    that this means Australia expects …”

    Maybe it was unambiguous to them. Is that any reason why they should
    do what Australia expects?

    For now, in addition to deploying all manner of … sticks …,
    the Australian Government must …

    Considering whether the Australian Government has any entitlement to
    “deploy sticks” would be a good start.

    The writer’s obvious view that the Solomon Islands should do what
    Australia wants, which seems entirely consistent with the view shown
    by the Australian government in the past that Australia is entitled
    to run Solomon Islands affiars, is quite likely the reason for its
    diplomatic failures.

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