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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has thrown a cat among the mynah birds.
No matter the strenuous objections from overseas and from many in his own country after a draft copy of the agreement was leaked, Mr Sogavare has stayed the course and signed the final document.
He claims the agreement will not amount to a Chinese base in this pivotal part of the Pacific. But who would know? The agreement remains secret for now. And there is plenty of ambiguity in the draft. This could also be the precursor for further agreements.
The draft pact said Solomon Islands could call on “armed police, military personnel” and other law enforcement from China to maintain “social order”. China could also send military personnel and navy vessels to the area “according to its own needs”.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned of the “potential militarisation” of the Pacific and said the draft was “gravely concerning”. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the agreement risked “destabilising current institutions and arrangements”.
Solomon Islands is about 2000km off the Australian coast and guards key shipping lanes linking Australia, New Zealand, China, Asia and the United States.
Why would Solomon Islands do this? After all, Australia and New Zealand have maintained close links and, as recently as late last year, sent troops at the Islands’ behest to help keep the peace.
Solomon Islands has been independent since 1978, and Mr Sogavare went so far as to say he was insulted by the reaction to news of the draft.
Solomon Islands is perfectly entitled to cast its net wider. Already, it has won extra attention from Australia and the United States. A high-level delegation from the US has just visited, and assistance and additional aid will follow.
Both Australia and New Zealand, largely because of growing Chinese interest and influence, have been giving more attention and money to the Pacific in recent years.
The diverse Solomons has struggled for stability and is extremely poor. Bringing in China encourages others to step up contributions. Australia is the biggest donor. It puts its planned direct bilateral aid for the 2022-23 year at $A103.3 million and the total aid budget estimate at $A161.1 million.
The Labor Party in Australia called the fact the pact was signed Australia’s biggest foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War2. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded, in part, by saying “as Prime Minister, the best thing for me to say is they [the Chinese] don't play by the same rules as transparent liberal democracies’’.
There has been unease about China paying towards a development fund that is distributed directly to Solomon Islands MPs.
Solomons itself has six main islands and about 900 altogether. The population is about 650,000. Its strategic position prompted fierce and prolonged fighting during World War 2, notably in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale has reiterated that Solomon Islands did not need another security pact and there were no external threats. He slated the secrecy of the agreement.
Other Pacific leaders are concerned, and the matter will be the focus of discussion in the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australia and New Zealand and now the United States will have to work steadily and diplomatically to try to keep Solomons Islands within Pacific Forum co-operation rather than orientating towards China.
Solomons itself should be wary. Already, there are strong anti-Chinese feelings on the island, flaring when Solomons switched support from Taiwan to China in 2019 and given voice to during the riots in Honiara last November.
China is authoritarian, and its style of support comes without expectations of Western transparency, democracy, or financial accountability. This could foster corruption, a long-term issue, and damage the future of Solomon Islands.