Communist China is moving across the Pacific from island group to island group, and soon the People's Liberation Army will be in striking distance of Hawaii. China's new five-year deal with the Solomon Islands, subject to automatic renewals, will allow Beijing to use the islands to base its military and to do pretty much what the Chinese military wants. Pictured: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shows the way to Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, in Beijing on October 9, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Peter/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
On March 25, the Solomon Islands announced it was "expanding" security arrangements, "diversifying the country's security partnership including with China."
The announcement was defensive. The day before, opponents of a security pact with China leaked what was labeled a "draft" agreement. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's government did not confirm the authenticity of the leaked document, but observers believe he intends that version to be final. Australia, which expressed "great concern," confirmed the draft as authentic.
The pact, titled "Framework Agreement Between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands on Security Cooperation," highlights a disturbing trend: China, after years of persistent commercial, diplomatic, and military efforts, is taking over the Pacific.
Beijing is moving from island group to island group, and soon the People's Liberation Army will be in striking distance of Hawaii.
Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells Gatestone the Framework Agreement was a "unilateral decision by Sogavare." "There has been no public consultation," she pointed out.
The five-year deal, subject to automatic renewals, will allow Beijing to use the islands to base its military and to do pretty much what Chinese generals and admirals want. "China," the pact states in Article I, "may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands."
If implemented to its full extent, the Framework Agreement will give China the ability to sever shipping lanes and air links connecting the U.S. with its treaty ally Australia and partner New Zealand.
For decades, Washington allowed Canberra and Wellington to manage the Solomons and its region, and both Western powers, through the corrosive combination of neglect and condescension, allowed China to make significant inroads. Beijing, through payoffs now detailed in public, essentially owns Sogavare's government.
Sogavare, not surprisingly, is doing Beijing's bidding. He switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, and has, at home, opened the door wide to Chinese investment.
The prime minister has also mismanaged the country, for instance marginalizing the country's most populous island, Malaita, and threatening its premier, Daniel Suidani. Putting his life at risk, Suidani has resolutely opposed the Chinese takeover of the Solomons.
In November, Sogavare's misrule resulted in deadly riots in the capital of Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, where 1,600 Americans died in 1942 and 1943 freeing the island from Japanese control.
Australia in November sent police and troops to restore order and thereby saved Sogavare's government, which then seemed to be on the verge of failure. Canberra's misguided intervention made it easy for Sogavare then to invite Chinese police in February. Beijing's presence solidified his hold on power.
The Framework Agreement also provides, in Article 1, that the "Solomon Islands, may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people's lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the Parties."
Honiara on the 25th said it would keep its 2018 security agreement with Canberra in place, but it is evident that Sogavare is looking only to China for police and military assistance.
Sogavare, backed by Beijing's military and the Framework Agreement, can effectively end democracy in the Solomons. Paskal, who closely follows the Pacific, reports that the prime minister is trying to postpone elections. "If Sogavare can trigger a domestic security crisis, he will use that as an excuse to keep himself in power," she notes. "China will help the prime minister provoke a civil war. That war will provide Sogavare an excuse to call in the Chinese military, according to the new agreement."
As Paskal told Gatestone, Beijing has already exacerbated tensions so that it could come to the "country's rescue."
The inter-island tensions that fuel the ongoing crisis are not new. In 2000, similar disputes were ended by the Townsville Peace Agreement, which Sogavare, also then prime minister, did not implement. Paskal suggests the deal could be the basis of another settlement.
The Solomons are not an isolated instance of Chinese penetration of Pacific governments. There is now talk that China will ink a security agreement with Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia.
Moreover, China wants to upgrade an airstrip in Kiribati. Beijing says the improvements are for civilian purposes only, yet the military uses are apparent and no one believes the Chinese assurances.
The facility is just 1,900 miles south of Hawaii. In Pacific terms, Kiribati is America's next-door neighbor.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.