After Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China in April, Australia and the United States have raised concerns over a potential Chinese military base being established in the archipelago nation. While the Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare denied such plans being part of the pact, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she was “deeply disappointed” about the agreement, while Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews claimed the Pacific as “our region” and said the development in Solomon Islands was “effectively happening in our backyard.”
U.S. ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, on the other hand, took part in a meeting with Sogavare in which a U.S. delegation outlined concerns about “potential regional security implications of the agreement not just for ourselves, but for allies and partners across the region.”
Of course, we have respect for the Solomon Islands sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns.
When asked to specify whether he would rule out military action against the Solomons, Kritenbrink refused to further comment on the situation. This echoes the strategy of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who called a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands a “red line” for Australia, but also refused to comment on what consequences crossing that line would include. Yet, Peter Dutton, Australian Minister of Defence, called upon Australians to “prepare for war” in answer to China’s expansion.
Meanwhile, Sogavare expressed displeasure about such rhetorics and called upon foreign countries, institutions and organizations to stop labeling Solomon Islands as their “backyard,” which he considered to be “very insulting and disrespectful.”
We must do so as an independent sovereign nation, not as a group of black-faced people tucked away in the backyard of some countries, Mr. Speaker. By the way, that term is offensive to us, very offensive. In custom, [the] backyard is where [the] toilet is. It is where pig and chicken pens are located. It is where rubbish is collected and burned. Not only that, but it’s a place where people can relieve themselves. Therefore, I call on those who brand us as backyard to stop and start to respect us.
Solomon officials stressed that the security agreement with China would not include a military base, but instead centered on cooperation on trade, education and fisheries. A leaked copy of the pact indicated that according to the agreement, Solomon Islands “may request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces”, while allowing in return that China could send ships for stopovers and to replenish supplies.
Sogavare also stressed that the “security agreement with Australia remains in place and intact,” but also added that “it is clear that we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners, and what is wrong with that? We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs, or to have other motives in pursuing our national interests.”
Despite financial aid from Australia, Solomon Islands has a history of feeling neglected since becoming a British protectorate in 1893. Shahar Hameiri, Queensland professor and Solomon specialist, told openDemocracy in an interview that even the colonization “was a gratuitous act, in response to a request from Australia,” who was worried the French might get there first. After the Solomons gained independence in 1978, however, the attitude towards them never really changed in Australia, according to Hameiri. “It’s never really about the people of Solomons. It’s about maintaining Solomons as a place that is not a threat to Australia.” The Solomon Islanders, on the other hand, might just feel that while Australians have “given us a lot of money, they don’t actually respect us very much, and we want a little bit more autonomy.”