In potentially opening the door to a Chinese military base, the Solomon Islands threatens the balance of power in a vital shipping region.
SYDNEY, Australia — When the Solomon Islands’ prime minister stood before Parliament on Wednesday to announce that his government had signed a sweeping security agreement with China, he insisted that it would “not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region.”
The prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, did not explain why he delivered the news just a few days before a delegation of senior American diplomats was set to arrive in the country’s capital, and while neighboring Australia is in the midst of an election campaign. Nor did he say whether the signed version matched an earlier leaked draft that offered an opening for Chinese law enforcement, troops and warships — and perhaps even a Beijing-controlled military base in the strategically important Pacific.
But with a mix of secrecy and vague assurance, Mr. Sogavare has shaken his own democracy and the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Having already suggested that he wants to delay next year’s election by rewriting the constitution, the prime minister now has China to lean on if protests break out. At the same time, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his army now have a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes.
“It’s a game changer,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who has investigated Chinese influence in the region.
The deal — if the signed version, as expected, resembles the draft — reveals a stunning set of potential precedents for world leaders who are already losing sleep over the global contest between democracy and autocracy.
To start, it provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.
Chinese and Solomons officials have both suggested that the security agreement is needed to ensure stability after several days of violent unrest in November aimed at both Chinese interests and the Sogavare government. In the draft, almost anything tied to China, from its citizens to small businesses to infrastructure to stadiums — like the one a Chinese contractor is building in the capital, Honiara — could be enough to spur a request for Chinese troops.
In a world where Chinese investment seems to be everywhere, many other nations could face similar pressure to allow in Beijing’s forces. More than 140 countries have signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which China typically lend large sums of money to countries for roads, dams, railways, ports and sports facilities.
With the pact, China is essentially trying to establish a principle of using military force to protect its economic presence in places where it claims the government does not have the capacity, said Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania who has advised several Pacific governments.
What the Solomons’ deal tells the world, at the very least, he added, “is that China believes that if its major projects are threatened, it wants a right to protect them.”
Charles Edel, the Australia chair and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the deal in more dire, and more expansive, terms.
“The lesson for the rest of the world is that China is looking to rebalance the global order in its favor,” he said. “And whether that means opening trade routes, establishing a military facility or signing a security agreement, Beijing will act to benefit its own interests, to the detriment of democracy and an open and free world.”
The Solomons aren’t the only place where the Chinese government has sought to couple security and economic arrangements — it has done so from Djibouti to Pakistan to Cambodia, where China has launched infrastructure projects that helped it gain access to strategic ports. But Mr. Edel said the agreement in the Solomons was “in some ways even more concerning.”
Think real estate: location, location, location. Because the nation of roughly 900 islands sits across shipping lanes connecting the United States to Asia, the Solomons (and its neighbors) have long been a strategic priority — as Japan showed in World War II, before the Americans dislodged its forces in the battle of Guadalcanal.
“The security deal between China and the Solomon Islands did not materialize out of thin air,” Mr. Edel said. “China has ramped up its presence and extended its influence across the Pacific over the past decade, and as it has done so, Beijing has been on the hunt for a military base in the region, which would allow it to project power outward and further influence the politics across the Indo-Pacific region.”
In Mr. Sogavare, the Chinese government has found a willing partner. And his commitment to such a secretive deal has shown how a single politician cozying up to Beijing in a small country can create geopolitical risks worldwide.
Mr. Sogavare is a savvy political survivor. He was appointed prime minister in 2019 for the fourth time, sparking protests in the capital, with the police using tear gas against angry crowds. Some of that discontent spilled into the city’s Chinatown, which has often been a hot spot for unrest and frustration but has become even more of a focus given Mr. Sogavare’s quick embrace of China.
Soon after taking office, he broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and opened them with Beijing. He (and Chinese officials) promised a flood of investment for the struggling, sprawling island nation of 687,000 people, but the flow so far has been more of a trickle.
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Covid and other challenges have prevented any sort of rapid boom, and his decision to move in China’s direction is not popular at home. The protests in November were spurred by frustration from a province, Malaita, whose leaders tend to be more skeptical of China.
In a poll late last year, more than 90 percent of Solomon Islanders said they wanted their country to work closely with liberal democratic countries instead of China, and 79 percent said they did not want their country receiving financial aid from China.
Australia, which has often been the security assistant of choice for the region — sending a team in November to quell the unrest — is equally unhappy. When the draft of the agreement was leaked, Australian officials pressed the Sogavare government not to sign it.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison put the blame on China, saying the pact showed how many nations were vulnerable to Chinese encroachment.
“The sort of pressure and influence that has been seeking to be exerted in our region is very real,” he said.
American officials also tried to avoid scolding the Sogavare government. A State Department spokesman said the security deal followed a pattern in which the Chinese government offers “shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation.”
Mr. Sogavare has shown little interest in listening to Australia, the United States or other Pacific Island nations that have expressed concerns. In Parliament on Wednesday, after announcing that the security deal had been signed, he said: “I ask all our neighbors, friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of Solomon Islands.”
His critics in government are now worried that challenging him with a no-confidence vote could lead to more protests and a pretense for requesting Chinese assistance. Just the threat of Chinese intervention is already undermining the country’s democracy, Mr. Sogavare’s opponents say.
“This agreement is not in the interests of Solomon Islands at all,” said Peter Kenilorea Jr., the deputy opposition leader in Parliament and chairman of its foreign relations committee. “It’s in the interests of Beijing and the interest of the current government. It’s to keep them in power.”