When the Solomon Islands, an impoverished nation of 700,000 people 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Australia, announced the drafting of a new security agreement with China late last month, Australian officials warned the move could undermine security in the South Pacific and manifest Canberra’s longstanding fears of a Chinese military base in its backyard.
As the region’s largest foreign aid donor, Australia spent a record A$1.7 billion ($1.3 billion) last year on development assistance in the South Pacific, as well as billions more on security, health , logistics and telecommunications in the Solomon Islands), Canberra may have imposed economic sanctions to pressure Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to reconsider the deal.
Instead, Australia stepped up its largesse, promising a second patrol boat and outpost, A$65 million ($49 million) for a new embassy, and A$22 million for government salaries and an integrated radio network of police, health and disaster management throughout the archipelago. .
But as Australia looks to reassert its influence, Canberra’s recent rude awakening raises difficult questions about the limits of its ability to check China’s growing influence in the Pacific by flooding its neighbors with cash.
“When there was large-scale civil unrest in the capital Honiara last year, Australia deployed security personnel within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Solomon Islands and other countries in the region followed suit,” Mihai Sora, former Australian diplomat. to the Solomon Islands and a researcher at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“But the new deal potentially gives wide reach to Chinese military personnel, assets and armed police. It shows two things: there are security gaps in the Solomon Islands that Australia simply cannot fill, and that help will not buy Australia’s exclusivity even though China was able to impose exclusivity,” Sora added, referring to a 2019 decision by Honiara. decide. 36 years of foreign relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.
Despite growing support from Beijing, Chinese aid to the region has dwindled since 2018, while Chinese loans that Western officials have warned could lead to unserviceable debt have risen by leaps and bounds, now totaling $1,000. millions.
Some critics have accused Beijing of resorting to checkbook diplomacy, through which large sums of money have allegedly been funneled to political parties and actors. Taiwanese media reported that China gave the Solomon Islands $500 million for cutting ties with the self-governing islands, which Beijing considers part of its territory, although that figure has not been officially confirmed. But Deputy Leader of the Opposition Peter Kenilorea alleges that individual members of parliament also received between $250,000 and $750,000 Australian dollars each for their votes.
When a no-confidence motion was tabled in parliament last year after police used rubber bullets to disperse protesters who looted and burned Chinese-owned businesses, Beijing gave MPs 40,000 Australian dollars to reject the motion, according to various opposition figures. including Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, a political adviser in Malaita province, the most populous province.
Sogavare’s government rejected the bribery accusations as unfounded and questioned whether the accusations were aimed at discrediting him “for the sake of justifying criminal actions and political vandalism”. He has also insisted that he would not allow a Chinese military base in the country.
Beijing has denied any intention to establish a military base in the archipelago.
“The goal of China-Solomon Islands security cooperation is to protect people’s lives and property and has no military overtones,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news conference. last month. “The relevant comments and speculation in the media are unfounded and ill-intentioned.”
“Australia is not losing influence to China in the Solomon Islands; the average person on the street has a positive attitude towards Australians because they are the people who help us, while anti-Chinese sentiments are very strong due to destructive Chinese logging and mining practices that have caused massive environmental destruction,” Talifili, who advises Malaita. Prime Minister Daniel Suidani told Al Jazeera.
“But Australia is losing influence with the current government because Australian aid is transparent, while Chinese aid goes straight into their pockets.”
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a senator from the Australian state of New South Wales who served as Minister for International Development and the Pacific between 2016 and 2018, believes the allegations are well founded.
“There is a growing suspicion of Beijing’s influence over the political establishment in the Solomon Islands,” Fierravanti-Wells told Al Jazeera, adding that China’s actions in the South China Sea and debt-trap diplomacy ” they give an indication of the insidious nature of Beijing. intention”.
While the Sogavare administration has denied all allegations of impropriety, some analysts also believe it is too simplistic to attribute Honiara’s turn to Beijing to checkbook diplomacy.
“Prime Minister Sogavare explained the move from Taiwan to China because he expects the country to enjoy more trade opportunities from China than from Taiwan, and there is something to this idea that China has offered a compelling narrative of economic development,” Sora said. , the former Australian diplomat, who resides in Honiara.
“There is also support in the Solomon Islands for Sogavare’s view that the country should not be beholden to a single security partner like Australia and is looking to expand bilateral relations abroad.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Michael O’Keefe, professor of international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.
“From the Solomon Islands point of view, they see that decades of Australian aid has not delivered the security results that they hoped for,” O’Keefe told Al Jazeera. “So there are doubts about the efficacy of the Australian approach and they are looking at other options.
“And from China’s point of view, well, the US protects its citizens abroad and when China sees that its citizens and their investments in the Solomon Islands are threatened, why shouldn’t China take a step forward? forehead?”. O’Keefe added.
For Australia, bolstering its position against China may require a change of thinking, according to some observers.
Talifili said Canberra should divert aid from official channels to grassroots projects.
“Instead of sending huge amounts of money to the national government to build infrastructure like docks that don’t help ordinary people, they should look at how Americans deliver aid in the Pacific,” he said.
“They recently announced US$25 million in funding in Malaita province for a project called SCALE that will contract with NGOs and private companies to find new ways to deliver capital for agriculture, forests and fisheries to improve livelihoods. If Australia did the same, it would empower more people to vote for the opposition, which is pro-Taiwan and pro-Australia.”
O’Keefe offers a completely different solution.
“Australia could consider collaborating with China to meet the security needs of the Solomon Islands rather than simply framing this pact as another Chinese threat,” he said. “This is actually an opportunity for Australian police to work together with their Chinese counterparts, which is already what Australia does with US, New Zealand and Fijian security personnel in the South Pacific.
“But to do that,” he added, “Canberra would have to reset its default mindset that sees every move China makes in the South Pacific as a threat.”