Fortnight of 11 to 24 April 2022

Interrogating the Solomon Islands-China security agreement

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaking on 22 April 2022:

“We firmly reject the irresponsible remarks by certain Australian politicians on China-Solomon Islands relations.”

Quick take:

In recent weeks, assessments have flown thick and fast regarding the possible strategic implications of the Solomon Islands-China security cooperation agreement. On top of a range of concerns raised by the Prime Minister and his ministers, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong labelled the development the “worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.” In response to some of these worries, and in textbook whataboutist style, China sought to quickly turn attention away from the new security agreement to what Beijing claims is the duplicitous and covert character of Australian statecraft. Responding to questions from the press, MFA Spokesperson Zhao pivoted from talking about the security agreement to lambasting Australia and its AUKUS partners: “The three countries are trying to make South Pacific countries once again pawns in group politics and military confrontation and make the innocent people in South Pacific countries pay a heavy price for their selfish political agenda.”

Notwithstanding the need to carefully scrutinise this security development, I think it’s premature (at least for now) to conclude that the agreement entails dramatically negative consequences for Australia. This is not to say that I’m confident the security agreement will be a net neutral development for Australia. It’s entirely possible that the agreement will eventually lead to changes that further erode Australia’s and the region’s security. But I’m struck by the limited nature of the concrete outcomes China appears to have achieved via this new agreement (principally, the possibility of contributing to stabilisation missions and receiving logistics support). Moreover, and perhaps more important in the long term, China would still need to overcome many hurdles if it wanted to use this security agreement as the basis for acquiring a permanent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence or base in Solomon Islands. (Of course, it goes without saying that my assessments are based exclusively on information in the public domain.)

Rather than providing clear answers, the agreement, as I read it, poses a range of big and as-yet unanswered analytical and policy questions. Among others:

  • How will the security agreement be operationalised given what appear to be Solomon Islands’ deep domestic political divisions regarding China policy?
  • What in practice are the likely next steps in Solomon Islands-China security cooperation?
  • Quite aside from concerns in Canberra, Washington, Tokyo, and Wellington, will scepticism among Pacific capitals impose limits on how much China can gain from the agreement strategically and militarily in the long term?
  • If (and it’s still a case of ‘if’ not ‘when’ at this stage) China seeks some form of enduring military presence in Solomon Islands, what are the likely warnings and indicators that such a plan is being pursued?
  • If China had an enduring military presence or even a formal military base in Solomon Islands, how large and sophisticated is it likely to be given the South Pacific’s distance from both China’s most critical trade routes and Beijing’s pressing geostrategic priorities in its immediate maritime approaches in East and South-East Asia?
  • If China sought more than an ongoing rotational military presence and pushed for a formal military base, what are the likely domestic political, legal, social, etc., barriers in Solomon Islands to such an arrangement?
  • In terms of intelligence collection against Australia and/or shadowing Australian Defence Force (ADF) platforms and probing ADF responses, how much of an additional advantage would China gain from an ongoing military presence or base in Solomon Islands beyond what it will be able to achieve in the coming years with its growing fleets of intelligence collection platforms, aircraft carriers, long-distance submarines, and expanding military footprint in the South China Sea and other potential overseas locations such as Cambodia? (NB I don’t doubt that there would be advantages given proximity to Australia but there are also added costs and complications associated with bases that might make other mobile options more appealing for China.)
  • In a conflict scenario, how much of a threat to Australia would a PLA rotational presence or permanent base pose given such an installation’s vulnerability to Australian and allied forces and the difficulties that China would face with logistics and sustainment?

None of these questions mean that China won’t seek to use this security agreement to pursue goals that undermine Australia’s influence and interests. Nor do these questions mean that high impact/low probability scenarios such as a full-scale PLA base being used to project power against Australia in a conflict scenario are impossible. Nevertheless, these and many other similar questions at least suggest that the strategic implications of this security agreement for Australia are far from clear. They also point to a range of serious political, diplomatic, social, legal, logistical, etc., hurdles that China will need to overcome if it does eventually seek a permanent PLA presence or base in Solomon Islands. As political leaders and ministers have been at pains to stress, Solomon Islands is a sovereign state and Beijing’s ambitions will have to contend with the agency and interests of Solomon Islanders. As such, it seems there are many more moves and counter-moves to come before we can confidently assess the security implications of this agreement.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Solomon Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Jeremiah Manele sign a joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations on 21 September 2019 []

Red lines on the water

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking on 24 April:

“I share the same red line that the United States has when it comes to these issues. … We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep.”

Quick take:

Despite disavowals from Honiara and Beijing, Canberra is clearly deeply concerned about the possibility of a PLA base in Solomon Islands. The Prime Minister’s reference to the spectre of such a possibility followed a strong and ominously ambiguous US statement: “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.” Given Solomon Islands’ proximity to Australia, Canberra’s concerns about a possible PLA presence are unsurprising. But while it might make strategic sense for Australia to pre-emptively telegraph its objections to the PLA looking for real estate so close to Australian shores, Canberra’s concerns may not be realistic when extended to the region more broadly. In short: Is it feasible for Australia to have the goal of keeping a permanent PLA presence out of the South Pacific and South-East Asia? (Of course, much hinges on how one defines the Prime Minister’s reference to Australia’s “region”. For present purposes, let’s go with something akin to the geographic location of the 2016 Defence White Paper’s second Australian strategic defence interest: the South Pacific and South-East Asia.)

Considering the scope of Beijing’s global military aims and the resources at its disposal, keeping PLA naval bases out of Australia’s region begins to look extremely ambitious. President Xi Jinping has stated plainly his country’s goal of building a “world-class military”. To achieve this goal, defence spending in China continues to rapidly rise in absolute terms and the PLA is undertaking a massive capability modernisation effort—all despite military spending as a percentage of GDP remaining well below the global norm for the largest and most advanced military powers.  Meanwhile, China’s military strategy has since 2015 emphasised a shift in “focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defence’ with ‘open seas protection,” which provides the PLA Navy with a strategic mandate to project power across the globe’s oceans. Noting these expansive military missions, it’s unsurprising that China has been seeking PLA access and basing options.

These and other data points suggest a determined and well-resourced effort to not just expand the capability and international role of the PLA, but also acquire the access and basing arrangements needed to sustain military presence around the globe and in Australia’s region. This is not to advocate fatalistic acceptance of what Beijing may seek to achieve via the Solomon Islands-China security agreement and other possible security agreements between China and Australia’s neighbours in the South Pacific and South-East Asia. Nor is it to suggest that Australia should not seek to shape the way in which the growing PLA presence in its region evolves. Depending on how China’s statecraft and basing plans progress, it may prove prudent for Canberra to devote significant financial, diplomatic, and political resources to forestalling specific future PLA access or basing plans. This imperative may be especially strong in cases where such access arrangements or bases are close to Australia or could complicate the ADF presence at overseas bases, including Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth.

But despite all this, more PLA presence in more locations in South-East Asia and the South Pacific seems almost certain. Australia can and should seek to influence where in the region China’s military platforms end up and how many of them materialise close to home. But Canberra will probably need to resign itself to mitigating rather than entirely blocking this PLA presence in its region. China has the means and intent to build a military with power projection capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific, and Beijing has long appreciated the need for bases and access arrangements to sustain such a force posture.

Australia may well be on sound strategic ground seeking to minimise China’s security cooperation with a country less than a couple of thousand kilometres from its coast. But Canberra will need to be judicious with its objections to PLA presence in South-East Asia and the South Pacific more broadly. Over the longer term, it appears unlikely that Canberra, or even Washington for that matter, will be able to entirely stop the PLA gaining additional access and basing options in the region. In Cambodia, for example, even forceful US tactics of sanctions and stiff diplomatic warnings don’t seem to have slowed Phnom Penh and Beijing’s military embrace. If the past few centuries of military history are any guide, China’s growing military power and expansive strategic objectives are likely to be accompanied by a range of military access points and bases around the globe.

Who’s changed?

Minister for Defence Peter Dutton speaking in Ipswich on 22 April:

“What’s changed here in our region is China under President Xi. Okay. If you look at what’s happened on the India-China land border, there have been Indian troops who have died there in the last three years at the hands of Chinese troops. Now, India hasn’t changed. India is not the aggressor. If you look at what’s happened in the East China Sea, the Chinese militia are bumping up against the Japanese Coast Guard in a provocative action on a regular basis. It’s not Japan that’s changed. Japan is not the aggressor there, China is. And if you look at what’s happening in the acts of interference within our own region, the corrupt payments in parts of Africa, the situation in Sri Lanka with the port, it’s not those countries that have changed, it’s China under President Xi.”

Quick take:

A couple of days later, Minister Dutton doubled down on this assessment that changes in China’s behaviour are driving a deterioration in regional security. On 24 April, he reiterated this point in even more forceful terms: “It’s not our countries [the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, India, New Zealand, and Australia] that have changed. I mean we still stand for the same values. It’s China under President Xi. And as we found in the 1930s, if you just continue on an appeasement phase … then you will find yourself in conflict.”

Regardless of whether one accepts Minister Dutton’s characterisation, his comments highlight a critical divide in China debates that deserves much more attention. In its most stark form, it’s the chasm between Minister Dutton’s view that China has made the world less safe and other countries must respond accordingly and something akin to the Chinese Embassy official’s warning in November 2020: “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” According to one version of reality, China is threatening, and other countries have been forced to respond with more military capability and national security protections. According to the other version, China is pushing forward with a more assertive defence and national security posture as a response to the hostility of other states. Although I’ve simplified these positions somewhat/a lot, versions of these kinds of arguments regularly feature in public debates about the nature of China’s contemporary statecraft and the appropriate policy responses.

As well as intersecting with complex and longstanding academic debates about security dilemmas, escalatory cycles, and feedback loops, this divide has massive contemporary policy implications. Broadly speaking, if one believes that China has changed and become more threatening, one is probably going to stick with strong military and security responses to China’s growing strategic rise and reach. By contrast, if one believes that other countries’ policies towards China have (at least in part) prompted China’s more assertive military and security posture, then one is probably going to seriously consider actions that Australia and other countries might take to deescalate and reassure Beijing.

I don’t pretend to have a clear and compelling answer to which side of this debate is (more) right. And even if I did, I wouldn’t dare try and justify it in a few hundred words. More importantly though, I’m not even sure that such a generalised answer is possible: It seems plausible to me that the extent to which other countries’ actions towards China have influenced Beijing’s choices will vary significantly between different policy arenas. For example, China’s longstanding military modernisation goals and publicly declared plans to build a “world-class military” mean that the growth of the PLA is probably not driven by other countries’ recent decisions to acquire more military capabilities. By contrast, China’s increasingly enthusiastic embrace of various tools of economic statecraft has probably been spurred (at least to some degree) by the way in which the United States and other key economies have used similar tools against China. (On the latter point, I’m thinking especially of China’s use of tit-for-tat tariffs and sanctions following similar moves by the United States, the European Union, and others.)

What does all this mean for Australia and its relationship with China? My tentative sense is that there’s likely to be value in considering which of China’s policy decisions have been shaped (even if just in part) by Australia’s positions and which of these policy decisions were largely (or even entirely) uninfluenced by Australian actions. As well as highlighting policy arenas in which Australia might be able to exert more influence over China’s behaviour, such analysis would provide a more thorough account of how the Australia-China relationship came to be in its current state. Even if the Australian government and people are comfortable with Canberra’s current China policy settings, there’s value in understanding more fully how changes in Canberra’s positions (and not just Beijing’s) might have contributed to recent dynamics in bilateral ties.

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections are very much appreciated.