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Red Star Over Solomon Islands

Context:

A recent leaked document has revealed that the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific has reached a deal with China which outlines an unprecedented level of security cooperation. This is the first deal of its kind for Beijing in the region.

Relevance:

GS II- India and its neighbourhood relations

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About Solomon Islands
  2. What are the contents of the proposed deal and why are they controversial?
  3. What is the rationale for the Solomon Islands’ increasing proximity to China?
  4. Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?

About Solomon Islands

  • The Solomon Islands is a sovereign country in Oceania, located east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu, with six major islands and over 900 smaller islands.
  • Honiara, the capital, situated on Guadalcanal, the largest of the country’s islands.
  • It is located between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and is part of the ethnically Melanesian group of Pacific islands.
  • The country is named after the Solomon Islands archipelago, a group of Melanesian islands that also contains the North Solomon Islands (a part of Papua New Guinea).
  • Outlying islands such as the Santa Cruz Islands, Rennell, and Bellona are not included.

History:

  • The islands, were initially controlled by the British Empire during the colonial era, went through the hands of Germany and Japan and then back to the U.K., after the Americans took over the islands from the Japanese during World War II.
  • The islands became independent in 1978 to become a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown, with a parliamentary system of government.
  • Nevertheless, its inability to manage domestic ethnic conflicts led to close security relations with Australia, which is the traditional first responder to any crisis in the South Pacific.

What are the contents of the proposed deal and why are they controversial?

  • Recently, The document titled ‘Framework Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation’ was leaked through social media.
  • It created a huge controversy domestically as well as internationally because it has the potential to disturb the established security mechanisms in the South Pacific region.
  • The document explicitly enables Beijing to send its “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” to the islands on the latter government’s request, or if the former sees that the safety of its projects and personnel in the islands are at risk.
  • The document also provides for China’s naval vessels to utilise the islands for logistics support.
  • There have been speculations in the wake of this revelation that China might be building its next overseas naval base in Solomon Islands after Djibouti, which was also incidentally referred to as a logistics support base.
  • Dismissing the prospects for any foreign military base, the government of Solomon Islands affirmed the finalisation of the draft of such a deal.
  • The deal is not yet signed and it is not fully known whether the provisions mentioned in the leaked document are present in the final draft.

What is the rationale for the Solomon Islands’ increasing proximity to China?

  • The Solomon Islands had cultivated strong ties with Taiwan, which ended with the emergence of the current government in Honiara.
  • In 2019, the new government switched Taiwan for China.
  • This was supposedly after Beijing offered half a billion U.S. dollars in financial aid, roughly five times what Taiwan spent on the islands in the past two decades.
  • It has been alleged by the pro-Taiwan Opposition that the Sogavare government has been bribed by China.
  • As the money from China flowed in, so did the adverse impact to the local population from Chinese businesses, Chinese labourers for Chinese infrastructure projects, as well as a perceived preferential treatment for Chinese interests by Honiara.
  • The switching of diplomatic relations along with the general dissatisfaction with the government, led to widespread Opposition protests and riots in Honiara in November 2021.
  • Strikingly, these riots targeted Chinese assets in addition to government property.
  • The government has also notably mentioned that the move is aimed at diversification of its security partnerships, taking aim at its longstanding security dependence on Australia.

Why is China interested in the Solomon Islands?

  • Trying to isolate Taiwan: The Solomon Islands was one of six Pacific island nations with formal bilateral ties with Taiwan.
  • Powers in International Fora: The small Pacific island states act as potential vote banks for the great powers in international fora such as the United Nations.
  • Larger EEZ: In comparison to their modest size, these governments have abnormally large marine Exclusive Economic Zones.
  • Resources: The Solomon Islands, in particular, have large timber, mineral, and fishery reserves.
  • Counter the United States: They are also ideally positioned for China to insert itself between the United States’ military outposts in the Pacific islands and Australia.

-Source: The Hindu

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October 2022
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