In April 2022, the world learned that China and the Solomon Islands had concluded a framework security treaty allowing China to deploy its naval forces in a small but strategically important nation in Oceania, just 2,000 km off the coast of the largest state in the South Pacific, Australia. At this point, however, the Chinese authorities say that the China-Solomon Islands security treaty is not intended to threaten other countries, and that the dialogue between Beijing and Honiara is purely peaceful.
The Solomon Islands is one of the largest countries in Oceania, consisting of almost 1,000 islands. The country has a population of about 700,000. In terms of population, the Solomon Islands is second only to two countries in Oceania, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. The rapid growth of the population and economy presents the Solomon Islands leadership with a lot of difficult choices that have to do with the country’s foreign policy course.
On May 26, 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Solomon Islands on a Pacific tour of 8 countries in Oceania. In his address, he said that China was ready to address the issue of improving the well-being of this small Oceanian country and thereby confirm its status as a trusted partner. During the meeting with representatives of the Solomon Islands, the Chinese Foreign Minister stressed that Beijing is determined to follow the path of South-South cooperation, which involves mutual assistance and mutual support to neighboring countries. The diplomat noted that China will do everything in its power to speed up the economic and technical development of the island nation. Wang Yi believes that Beijing’s successful implementation of joint projects with Honiara will be a model of effective cooperation with China for all countries in Oceania. The Chinese Foreign Minister summed up his speech by saying that the Solomon Islands had made a new “sincere and reliable friend.” With these words, the Chinese diplomat demonstrated the seriousness of China’s intentions in Oceania.
It should be recalled that trade between China and the Solomon Islands has increased markedly over the past twenty years. First and foremost, this is due to a very high growth rate of the Chinese economy and the construction of new supply chains, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Today, China is Honiara’s key export partner. The main exports from Solomon Islands to China are seafood and timber. Importantly, China is increasing its presence in the economy of this small island nation year by year.
It cannot be overlooked that this change in developments has raised serious concerns in the US and Australia. Washington and Canberra realize that if the Solomon Islands finally leaves their sphere of influence, other island nations in Oceania may follow suit. If this happens, Beijing will effectively control the South Pacific.
In April 2022, US officials said Washington would respond immediately if China deployed its military facilities in the Solomon Islands under its security cooperation treaty with Honiara. On April 25, a US delegation including Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs in the National Security Council of the White House Kurt Campbell visited Honiara, along with representatives from the Department of Defense and the US Agency for International Development. The US leadership attempted to change Honiara’s foreign policy course, but these intentions never materialized as the security treaty with the PRC had already been signed days earlier.
In addition to economic cooperation, the Solomon Islands and China have an active humanitarian partnership. Just a year ago, in May 2021, the Coronavirus Vaccine Launching Ceremony was held in Honiara, attended by Chinese Ambassador Li Ming. The diplomat stated that the Solomon Islands had become the first oceanic nation to receive Chinese antiviral vaccine. According to the ambassador, the joint fight against the pandemic was not only to speed up the global victory over COVID-19, but also to help strengthen relations between the two countries.
The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare expressed his sincere appreciation to China for supplying vaccines, and said the Chinese antiviral vaccine Sinopharm had proven to be very effective in combating the pandemic, so he directed that it be used in all provinces of the country. Manasseh Sogavare argued that the Chinese vaccine had contributed greatly to the safety of the lives of citizens and health workers.
Experts estimate that the supply of the Chinese vaccine to the Solomon Islands has significantly slowed the rate of coronavirus infection in the country, which has indeed saved the lives of many islanders.
On February 18, 2022, one month before the signing of the security treaty, the Chinese side provided Solomon Islands with a large shipment of antivirals and police equipment. A short handover ceremony was held in Honiara to mark the occasion, attended by the already mentioned Chinese Ambassador Li Ming. He said that China, committed to Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” declared back in 2012, was doing its utmost to help other countries defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and overcome the challenges associated with this global scourge.
The Minister of Health of the Solomon Islands, who was present at the ceremony, thanked the PRC for its assistance and said that the supply of Chinese vaccine had significantly reduced the number of coronavirus cases in the country. The minister expressed his government’s appreciation of Beijing’s policy and hoped for continued fruitful cooperation.
Indeed, the example of such a successful partnership with China may well be followed in the foreseeable future by other countries in Oceania, to which Beijing can offer more favorable terms than those previously offered by Washington and Canberra. Perhaps China will be able to conclude defense agreements with small island states similar to the treaty with the Solomon Islands, in the coming years. Especially since an attempt to do so (unsuccessfully so far) was already made in early June 2022 by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the said Pacific tour of the 8 countries of Oceania.
To sum up, the time of Australian and US domination of the foreign policy of the Oceanian countries is gradually coming to a logical end. It is becoming apparent that the Western powers no longer have as many resources as China to keep all of Oceania within their sphere of influence. Of course, American and Australian politicians will make strong resentful statements over China’s annually increasing presence in the region, but such rhetoric will do nothing but heighten international tensions.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.