• William Piekos

The China-Solomon Islands Agreement and Beijing's Prospects for Influence in the Pacific Islands


Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare meeting with Xi Jinping in October 9, 2019. (Parker Song, Reuters)

Earlier this year, a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands elicited a surge of Western criticism and long-awaited international attention to the Pacific Islands. In short, the pact—leaked in March and signed the next month—allows China, as requested by the government in Honiara, to “assist in maintaining social order” and dispatch forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.” It also permits the Chinese navy to make port visits and logistical replenishment. Critics have declared this an opening for China to acquire a naval base in the Solomon Islands, though Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has consistently denied the possibility. Officials in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific Island nations quickly assailed the draft of the deal and its subsequent signing, and engaged in a flurry of diplomatic missions to persuade, cajole, and threaten Sogavare to reject Beijing’s overtures.

In the past decade, Beijing has made progress in its attempts to gain influence in Pacific Island capitals, spreading economic largesse throughout the region with little resistance from other regional powers. This investment and development aid has been widespread, but China has gained the most influence in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. In the Solomon Islands, Sogavare’s reelection in 2019 (for the fourth time) precipitated a diplomatic switch from diplomatically recognizing Taiwan to establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China, reinflaming an inter-island dispute between the main island of Guadalcanal and the less-developed Malaita. These tensions resulted in a series of deadly riots in Honiara in November 2021, which ultimately led the Sogavare government—already distrustful of its Western partners and the recipient of their criticisms—to ink the security agreement with Beijing. Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, made the diplomatic switch just days after the Solomon Islands, lured by promises of investment and development assistance. Maamau was reelected in June 2020 in part based on his pro-China rhetoric and ability to direct Chinese aid to the benefit of Kiribati, and his government has since made policy choices in line with Beijing’s desires, such as opening a marine protected area to commercial fishing.

Following the agreement with the Solomon Islands, Beijing quickly attempted to turn its success in Honiara into a larger campaign for influence in the Pacific Islands. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pursued new deals during a ten-day, eight-nation swing though the Pacific Islands in May, including the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and a five-year action plan at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. The framework—proposed to ten members of the PIF—covered issues ranging from policing and security to data communication and economic development. Beijing’s proposal was not met with enthusiasm, and a number of regional leaders expressed skepticism of China’s plans. The president of the Federated States of Micronesia argued to his fellow Pacific Island nations that China’s communique should be rejected, fearing a new Cold War. Following the meeting, Fiji’s prime minister highlighted rising sea levels, pandemic job loss, and the increased cost of commodities as more important than “geopolitical point-scoring.”

For these reasons and more, Beijing is unlikely to be able to use its agreement with Honiara and its proposed multilateral frameworks as springboards to more expansive influence in the region. The China–Solomon Islands agreement was the product of domestic political challenges facing Sogavare, conditions which are not guaranteed to be replicated elsewhere in the region. More broadly, China’s nontransparent negotiations have not been appreciated in a region marked by consensus-based decision-making, particularly as fears of growing debt—compounded by pandemic-related slowdowns—have raised questions of Beijing’s intent. And with long-overdue Western attention showered on the Pacific Island region in the aftermath of the agreement, China will also find itself competing with reinvigorated regional heavyweights—the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

It should come as no surprise that the hastily presented multilateral framework failed, but Beijing will not be dissuaded to abandon its efforts so easily. So what does Beijing seek to gain through deeper ties in the Pacific Islands, and what are its prospects for success? Beijing mainly hopes to win over Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners, pursue economic opportunities through the Belt and Road Initiative and other projects, and expand the Chinese navy’s ability to operate further from the mainland. The Pacific Islands also span important maritime corridors, contain an abundance of natural resources (including access to fisheries, one of China’s victories in Kiribati), and function as a consequential voting bloc in international organizations. However, China’s prospects for greater influence over policymaking in Pacific Island nations are not bright, and Beijing will have difficulty making headway on these issues.

Of Beijing’s three main goals, Beijing’s efforts to reduce Taiwan’s international space have been the most successful (as seen in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati) but also face the greatest headwinds. The Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu retain diplomatic ties with Taiwan and are likely to be the targets of Chinese pressure campaigns. However, Palau and the Marshall Islands are Freely Associated States with close ties to the United States through unique compact agreements (the Federated States of Micronesia is the third of the FAS). In June 2022, Tuvalu’s foreign minister withdrew from the United Nations Ocean Conference after China prevented the participation of three Taiwanese on its delegation list. Nauru has sparred with China over its close ties with Taiwan, and in 2021, the island turned to Australia to construct undersea cables for fear that China would win the contract. While the allure of Chinese economic assistance cannot be underestimated, these four countries have resisted Chinese pressure thus far.

On the economic front, Beijing is extending its Belt and Road Initiative into the Pacific Islands, mirroring its efforts elsewhere in the world, and has had some success in overshadowing its competitors. Inconsistent attention from Washington and Canberra has eased the way over the past decade. The draw of much-needed assistance from China cannot be underestimated, though the ultimate impact of investment and development aid on policy decisions in Pacific Island capitals is often tied to domestic political struggles in these countries. Still, China has invested significant sums throughout the region, with additional deals and investments in the works, such as a recently signed economic and technical agreement between China and Samoa and ten agreements with Kiribati during the May summit. Moving forward, however, Beijing will confront greater resistance—in the wake of the China-Solomon Islands agreement, the United States and Australia are committing new resources and attention to the region, while Pacific Island nations themselves become more attuned to the possible downsides of cooperation with China.

Finally, from a security perspective, the northwestern edge of Pacific Islands is part of the “second island chain,” an important benchmark for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s aspirations as a blue water navy. Despite the alarm bells set off by the China-Solomon Islands security agreement, the Pacific Islands are unlikely to host a military base in the near future. There is a higher likelihood that the PLAN will secure usage of deep-water facilities through which naval vessels can make port visits and monitor maritime traffic (with the recent clamor about a PLAN surveillance ship docking in Sri Lanka as evidence). In addition to developments in Honiara, China has funded construction of a wharf in Vanuatu, and the PLA has expanded military ties with Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. But even as China slowly pushes out its ability to operate further from the mainland, Beijing’s principal interests are closer to home: ensuring the ability to retake Taiwan and to gain control of the South China Sea’s resources and sea lines of communication through maritime coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to those contested waters. Moreover, Western distress over China’s agreement with the Solomon Islands ensures greater attention to the region and counterpressure on Pacific Island nations to seek other security partners.

Despite these challenges, Beijing will not be deterred by these seemingly dim prospects and will continue to press Pacific Island governments to get what it wants. In addition to China’s extensive economic promises, Beijing’s rhetoric on climate change and solidarity with developing nations has drawn positive attention in the region. Any assumption of China’s weakened outlook, however, is predicated in part on a sustained effort by Washington and its partners to offer their own set of initiatives to meet the economic, security, connectivity, and climate needs of the region. While there have been promising developments in this regard, China’s foray into the Pacific Islands has been persistent and opportunistic, leveraging the country’s economic size to improve relations with these small island nations, pursue the influence necessary to marginalize the United States, and gain the policy concessions it wants. The perceived failure of China’s proposed multilateral framework surely stings, but Beijing will continue to pursue influence through bilateral deals and the attraction of its economic capacity and has positioned itself to make the most of any waning of Western attention to the Pacific Islands.


 

William Piekos received his PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, where his research focused on alignment policies in Southeast Asia, U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign policy. He was recently a nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum, where he is also a member of the Young Leaders Program. He previously worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and the EastWest Institute.