The ‘Framework Agreement’ with China Transforms the Solomon Islands into a Pacific Flashpoint
In recent days, the Solomon Islands has once again been the subject of intense focus since a leaked draft security agreement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began circulating on social media. The six-article “Framework Agreement” is laden with vaguely defined terms and powers that would permit enormous PRC inroads into the Solomon Islands. It would allow China to operate large-scale and varied military and intelligence operations and become heavily involved in maintaining civic order through the deployment of “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces.” The Solomon Islands’ sovereignty would supposedly be protected by thinly detailed triggers and powers controlling Chinese intervention, such as the power of activation for the agreement and “consent” for Chinese naval visits being retained by the Solomon Islands’ government. Yet the inclusion of the phrase that supposedly gives both nations power to act “according to its own needs” has escalated concerns about what might result if this agreement comes into force. The agreement would also provide all Chinese personnel “legal and judicial immunity,” and costs would be decided “through friendly consultation by the Parties.” All of these extensive activities and powers would also remain “confidential” to any third parties according to the draft agreement.
Initially, the veracity of the leaked document was unclear until the Solomon Islands government officially acknowledged on March 25 that they were seeking to “broaden security cooperation with more partners.” They also confirmed that the PRC Framework Agreement was not yet signed though the Solomon Islands government now appears determined to finalize it despite growing regional pressure.
Q1: How would the proposed Framework Agreement with the PRC impact the Solomon Islands’ fragile domestic situation?
A1: The short answer is, drastically. The Solomon Islands has been in a state of uneasy calm since regional peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and New Guinea began entering the country on November 26, 2021, at the request of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. This request for a return of international peacekeepers came in the wake of deadly riots in the capital of Honiara that broke out two days earlier and escalated to the point that Sogavare’s official residence and the nation’s parliament building were on the brink of being breached by rioters.
The riots were sparked by long-standing grievances between the most populous and largest Solomon Islands province of Malaita (that encompasses the entire island of that name), which has also been chronically under-resourced by national governments. This disparity has fueled long-standing tensions between Malaita, successive national governments, and residents of the main island of Guadalcanal (where Honiara is situated), where many Malaitans often need to settle to find work. Tensions erupted into armed conflict between Malaitans and the people of Guadalcanal in 1998. The situation deteriorated to the point that the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) entered the nation at the request of the then-prime minister in 2003 and stayed until 2017. At this time, Australia signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.
Unresolved tensions between Malaita and national governments were inflamed again in September 2019, when Prime Minister Sogavare dramatically switched the nation’s 36-year allegiance to Taiwan, without consultation, to the PRC. Malaitan politicians prominently opposed this decision, pledging their ongoing support for Taiwan. They charged the Sogavare government of withholding development projects and other forms of support for the Malaita Province in retaliation for its pro-Taiwan stance, directly contributing to the accumulation of civic anger unleashed in Honiara from November 24. Mob attacks focused on Honiara’s Chinese-descendent community. The Framework Agreement provides for the “protection” of Chinese personnel and “major projects” as a trigger for Chinese interventions.
When regional peacekeepers responded to Sogavare’s request for assistance, Maliatan leaders strongly opposed the intervention as they claimed it propped up a deeply corrupt and deeply unpopular leader. When Sogavare faced a no-confidence vote in December 2021 following the riots, the extent of the government’s corruption came to light when parliamentarians who voted in support of Sogavare were rewarded with sizeable cash payments courtesy of the China-funded National Development Fund. At the same time Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, called for Malaita’s “self-autonomy.” The layering of PRC-Taiwan tensions onto domestic strains increased again in December 2021, when Sogavare accused rioters of being “agents of Taiwan” and announced that China would be sending six police trainers with “non-lethal” equipment to work with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.
The Solomon Islands has also had to grapple with the devastating impact of Covid-19 entering the country for the first time in mid-January 2022, adding enormous pressure to the already precarious situation. Moreover, recent disclosures of a secret shipment of replica high-powered weapons smuggled into the Solomon Islands for the purposes of police training cast an increasingly ominous shadow over Sogavare’s dealings with China. On the day the draft Framework Agreement circulated on social media, the Sogavare government-supporting newspaper, Solomon Times, reported that the government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the PRC on “policing cooperation.” Now that the Sogavare government has indicated the authenticity of the Framework Agreement, with its heavy emphasis on “maintaining social order,” these agreements with China are deeply concerning for their impact on the domestic context.
Q2: How does the Framework Agreement impact the geopolitics of the Pacific?
A2: As with the potential impact on the domestic situation, the geopolitical impacts of this agreement, if activated, would be game-changing for regional security. The fast-approaching 80th anniversary of the epic World War II battle for Guadalcanal underscores the singular importance of the Solomon Islands to secure Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea (particularly the emerging nation of Bougainville that lies just north of the Solomon Islands’ border), New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and the region beyond the Solomon Islands’ nearest neighbors. It is worth reflecting on how costly that battle was to all sides with Solomon Islanders still contending with residual and dangerous military detritus. Though the security landscape has altered drastically in the eight decades since the Battle of Guadalcanal, the fundamentals that made that battle critical to turning the tide of the war and preventing an imminent Japanese invasion of Australia remain unchanged. The Solomon Islands lie 2,000 miles (or under four hours by plane) east of northern Australia. They traverse critical shipping and communication lanes, so, as in 1942, their control by a hostile power is a threat to the defenses of Australia and beyond. The Framework Agreement would permit a considerable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military presence in the Solomon Islands (civil disorder would likely provide the pretext for PLA entry in the Solomon Islands) and it would permit the PLA Navy routine ship visits and logistical replenishment.
Regional reactions, led by Australia and New Zealand, have been strongly opposed to the agreement. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern described it as “gravely concerning.” Not only does the proposed agreement come in the wake of the regional cooperation and support for the Solomon Islands government expressed in the sending of peacekeepers last November, it also accompanies other demonstrations of support. This includes the February 2022 announcement during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the Pacific that the United States would be reopening an embassy in Honiara shuttered since 1993. At the time of the announcement, Blinken said the move was to prevent China from becoming “strongly embedded” in the South Pacific nation.
Since the Framework Agreement has come to light, many recriminations have followed. The “extremely disappointed” Solomon Islands opposition leader, Matthew Wale, claims he told Australian officials in August 2021 that China “would likely try to establish a military presence in Solomon Islands.” Facing a tough reelection fight where China relations are a major factor, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has received criticism that his climate change policies and a decline in foreign aid, particularly to the Solomon Islands, have eroded Australia’s influence for China’s gain. Morrison’s government has prominently used the term “Pacific family” as a way of expressing the deep ties between traditional Pacific actors that is implicitly exclusionary of China. The deployment of this sentimental rhetoric does not appear to have succeeded as a strategy.
There is no question that the emergence of the Framework Agreement is a bitter pill for all nations who have been working together in recent months to counter China’s influence in the Pacific through various means. There is no escaping the perception that this increased interest in the Pacific is coming too late. This recent surge of activity is evident in the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced in September 2021 and the Indo-Pacific Strategy launched by the Biden White House in February 2022. Some commentators are now calling for a complete overhaul in strategy toward the Solomon Islands, particularly relating to Prime Minister Sogavare and his government.
Others are taking the approach that the Framework Agreement feels like a case of déjà vu. Warren Entsch, Australian member of parliament for the North Queensland federal seat that lies closest to the Solomon Islands, cited the repeated announcements made about worrying Chinese activities in locations proximate to Australia that have not “come to fruition.” To his point, there was the proposed Chinese wharf in Vanuatu that set off alarm bells in 2018 and the proposed agreement between Papua New Guinea and the PRC for a huge “multi-functional fisheries industrial park” on Daru Island that lies just 3 miles from Australian territory in 2020. Though these projects were shelved, their impacts were felt in other ways, particularly in the drastic realignment of strategies intended to thwart China’s ambitions.
In an angry speech on March 29 to the first Solomon Islands parliamentary sitting since the December riots, Prime Minister Sogavare showed no signs of bowing to internal and regional pressures by stepping away from the Framework Agreement. Instead, he delivered an address that, on the one hand, spoke of national unity and the ambition that all Solomon Islands citizens live in harmony. On the other he railed against “lunatics” who are “agents of foreign regimes who have no regard for secrecy” (a swipe at the colleagues who leaked the Framework Agreement). He spoke of his sovereign nation’s right to diversify its external relations, describing the regional reaction to his nation exercising of these rights as “insulting” and asking the question, “What is wrong with that?” He repeatedly linked his nation’s security to economic development, noting the cost of the riots in terms of damage to property, life, and investor confidence. Sogavare’s evocation of national security challenges, necessitating the China agreement, and his statement that the Solomon Islands did not wish to pick geopolitical sides, was disingenuous. The Solomon Islands certainly has national security challenges, but they are solely of a domestic origin. Sogavare also avoided explaining why PLA Navy accommodations fitted into the Framework Agreement’s logic.
As result of Sogavare’s brinksmanship stance, the stage is now ominously set as all parties carefully consider their next moves. By doubling down on his emphatic support of China, which increasingly appears to be the guarantor of his government remaining in power, Sogavare will have emboldened his opponents. In contrast, they will be supported by a sizeable section of the Solomon Islands’ population and, it appears, the leadership of every nation in the region.
Patricia O’Brien is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Asia Program and Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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