Solomon Islands prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare kicked off his trip to China this week with a clear goal — to deepen bilateral ties with Beijing, causing alarm among some Western nations.
Among the highlights of the trip: Solomon Islands inaugurated its embassy in Beijing and the two countries signed a total of nine documents, including a police cooperation deal that will be effective through 2025.
In response to the signing of the agreements between China and Solomon Islands, the U.S and Australia have urged Beijing and Honiara to release details of the policing deals.
A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a statement that Canberra is concerned that the development will “invite further regional contest.”
In an interview with VOA Mandarin, John Hennessey-Niland, the former U.S Ambassador to Palau, said he is disturbed by the secrecy around the agreements.
“[There are] concerns about what the agreements between Solomon Islands and China may lead to,” he said, adding that it could result in a military presence in the middle of the Pacific, which is something that the world wants to avoid.
The deepening partnership between Solomon Islands and China in recent months, especially in security-related sectors, has alarmed Western democracies, such as the U.S and Australia.
In an attempt to compete for influence with China in the South Pacific, the U.S opened its embassy in Solomon Islands in February. Regionally, the Biden administration held its first United States-Pacific Island Country Summit in September 2022 and pledged US$810 million to the region in programs that range from fighting the climate crisis to maritime security and education.
Meanwhile, Australia continues to engage in security cooperation and talks with Solomon Islands as part of a decadeslong tradition in which Australia is the primary security provider to the Pacific island nation. Before Sogavare’s trip to China, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles was in Honiara for two days to discuss security.
However, following the talks, Sogavare called for a review of Solomon Islands’ security treaty with Australia, emphasising the move is necessary to take into account “the changing security challenges faced by both countries”
Some experts view Sogavare’s call for a reevaluation of the security partnership with Australia and the decision to sign a new police cooperation deal with China as clear signs that Solomon Islands is shifting its foreign policy focus.
“The decision seems to be pushing out Australia and New Zealand, which have both been involved in keeping the police and security cooperation and replacing it with China,” said Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China-Pacific politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
She said that the trend is reflecting implications of the China-Solomon security agreement signed last year.
After signing the controversial security pact, which outlined broad conditions under which the Pacific Island nation could ask China to send in armed police and military personnel, Solomon Islands sent a delegation of more than 30 police officers for training in China.
However, Brady highlighted differences between China’s police system and that of democratic countries’ including Solomon Islands.
Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat posted to Solomon Islands and a research fellow in the Pacific Islands programme at Lowy Institute, agreed.
“The obvious concern is what impact will it have on Solomon Islands’ police force, especially when we think about how the Chinese police force responded to political protests and domestic dissent in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet,” Sora told VOA.
Since Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Beijing has helped build up key infrastructure in the archipelagic state.
It includes the stadium for the upcoming Pacific Games, a multimillion-dollar cellular network built by the Chinese telecom giant Huawei and financed by a Chinese EXIM bank loan, as well as the redevelopment of a port in the capital, Honiara, that is being spearheaded by a Chinese state company.
Before he departed for Beijing, Sogavare said it is not in Solomon Islands’ interest to take sides, saying the island nation is “friends to all and enemies to none.”
“Our national interest is development,” he said during an annual Independence Day address last Friday. “This position has not changed. It is more urgent than ever.”
Despite Sogavare’s emphasis on Solomon Islands being neutral, his policies are contradicting that long-standing foreign policy principle, said Brady.
“His government is picking a side and excluding other partners,” she told VOA, adding that Solomon Islands continues to promote policies that are in line with China’s agenda in regional groupings.
However, Sora, from the Lowy Institute, said Sogavare is looking to maximise benefits from all partners.
“He is using the strategic anxiety of traditional partners like Australia and the U.S and the strategic intent of new partners like China to extract as many benefits from all partners as he can,” he said.
While the overall direction of Solomon Islands’ foreign policy under Sogavare’s rule remains unclear, Sora said China’s efforts to double down on relationships with certain countries in the Pacific are challenging the existing regional architecture and undermining regional unity.
“While U.S and Australia address regional concerns by working through the Pacific Islands Forum, China is looking for ways to work around the regional intergovernmental body,” he said.
“We will see this continuing push from China to maximise those relationships that are working in its favour in the Pacific, and that’s going to create an increased level of unease among Pacific countries,” Sora added.
Also during his trip, Sogavare praised China’s role in addressing global challenges, telling Premier Li Qiang that Solomon Islands “has a lot to learn from China’s development experience.”
In a meeting with Sogavare, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Beijing will continue to provide economic and technical assistance “without political strings attached”
Some analysts told VOA that China hopes to use Sogavare’s visit to show other Pacific countries that Beijing is a good partner while Sogavare hopes to convince the skeptical Solomon Islands public that the decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 is delivering results favorable to Honiara.
“Beijing is looking to publicize its approach to develop ties with Solomon Islands as a good news story, while Sogavare is demonstrating to domestic audiences that the relationship with China is delivering for the people,” Sora said.
Sogavare is expected to visit economic powerhouse provinces such as Jiangsu and Guangdong during his weeklong visit to China.