Indo-Pacific: China continues to expand its influence in small and weak states

(To Enrico Magnani)

While a part of the world watches with concern the evolution of the situation in Ukraine, in other regions of the globe, the international dynamics continue, unstoppable their course. In Asia, China continues its penetration in various sub-regions of the chessboard. This, following his (so far) indirect approach, less direct and brutal than the recent Putinian season, but no less dangerous for this.

An example of this approach is the recent evolution of the relations that China has managed to weave with the Solomon Islands, as an advanced point of Beijing's penetration of the South Pacific, thanks to a bilateral security pact.

This agreement is destined to increase tensions in the wider Indo-Pacific and has become a prism through which all the other components of the geopolitics of the entire, immense, chessboard will be refracted. A draft of the deal, very advantageous for China (obviously) leaked on social media on March 24, sparked an immediate storm of controversy. A chorus of appeals came from both national and international circles, asking the government of the Solomon Islands, led by the unscrupulous Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, to withdraw from the agreement. Sogavare strongly rejected all criticisms and expressions of "grave concern" and on March 31 China and the Solomon Islands began to formalize the agreement, the terms of which remain confidential (confidential agreements appear to be Beijing's new preference, as with the Vatican).

The Solomon Islands and the Indo-Pacific region will have to face the vast consequences of this latest development with far-reaching implications. The two contexts are now dangerously intertwined, with the greater geopolitical contest between China on the one hand, against the US, Australia, France, Taiwan and other allies (such as Japan, South Korea, and in different measures and perceptions, India and New Zealand ) with long-standing and increasingly precarious internal tensions.

These tensions, economic, social and ethnic, have often escalated into conflicts over the 44 years since the Solomon Islands gained independence from Great Britain in 1978. A decade of tensions between the islanders and the central government and between the islands themselves resulted in a serious armed conflict which began in 1998 and which cost the lives of 200 people. In 2000, the Townsville Peace Agreement was signed (in Australia, as Canberra had mediated between the parties), which actually led to a lengthy truce.

With the ceasefire reached, Australian-led military and police forces (with contingents from New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, totaling over 2,000 units) have been dispatched to the Solomon Islands and have remained there since 2003 to 2017, framed in the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI), which cost over two billion US dollars. The long mission actually only controlled the situation and Australia, the most important partner, failed to play a real role of mediation, pacification and start a process of inclusive socio-economic development, in a context where inequalities have indeed occurred. exacerbated.

This agreement between China and the Solomon Islands comes just four months after other stabilization forces from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea (far fewer in number than the aforementioned RAMSI) returned to the aid of the Solomon Islands at the end of November 2021. following the urgent request for help from the unavoidable Sogavare. Indeed days earlier, peaceful protests composed mainly of men from the island of Malaita were in the capital, Hoinara, denouncing what they saw as Sogavare's punitive treatment of the island for his pro-Taiwan stance after Sogavare suspended relations. diplomatic relations with Taipei and starting them with Beijing in September 2019.

The initially peaceful protests, also following a violent police crackdown, turned into a wave of looting and arson that hit Honiara's Chinatown in particular. Upon the arrival of international forces, the leaders of Malaita had warned that their presence was supporting the unpopular and corrupt government of Sogavare and, indirectly, Chinese penetration.

But Australia and its partners confirmed the initial approach of maintaining the stabilization force for the time strictly necessary for calm to return to the streets.

As soon as calm returned, Sogavare asked Beijing for help, which immediately sent a small department of instructors of the public security police (the civil police), materials and anti-riot equipment. At the announcement of the first agreement, strong concerns immediately emerged, especially in Canberra, but the government, grappling with a very hard (and highly contested) anti-COVID-19 campaign, the bad management of fires and floods, seemed to have other objectives (such as the long federal electoral campaign [the vote is scheduled for 21 May]).

In reality, it seems to have been a specific incorrect assessment, in fact Australia has been observing with concern the Chinese moves throughout the chessboard for some time and the recent constitution of the AUKUS pact is the best counter-proof of this. Looking back, however, there is a difference, when in the 80s Colonel Gaddafi attempted to infiltrate Libyan elements in Kiribati and Vanuatu, two other small island states in the South Pacific subregion, Australia reacted immediately.

However, only four months later, the warnings of the leaders of Malaita turned out to be correct. Not only did Sogavare remain firmly in power, thanks to the short presence of international troops and police, but now his power is guaranteed by China.

It is unclear exactly what the Solomon Islands and China agreed, as the final version of the pact was apparently kept secret from all but a select few government ministers. Sogavare stressed that the secrecy surrounding the security agreement was instead an affirmation of his nation's "sovereignty" (sic). Sogavare's comments on the security agreement, and the speed with which it was formalized, suggest that the final inked version is very close to the leaked draft. That six-article document was loaded with loosely defined terms and powers that would have allowed Beijing to carry heavy political forays and theoretically large-scale Chinese military and intelligence operations..

The agreement, starting with the deployment of the core of police instructors, but extending it massively, would allow China to be heavily involved in maintaining public order through the deployment of "police, armed police [the Chinese gendarmerie], military personnel and others. police forces "who would be granted" legal and judicial immunity ". The sovereignty of the Solomon Islands would be guaranteed, as would the activation power of the agreement and the "consent" for Chinese naval visits. However, the ambiguous terminology of the agreement that would give both nations the power to act "as they see fit" has raised concerns about the freedom this agreement offers China to expand its military might in the Southwest Pacific.

The recent history of the Solomon Islands allows us to imagine new internal crises as possible, due to its serious financial difficulties, aggravated by the revolts of 2021 (although Sogavare denied it) and the devastating arrival of COVID-19 in the form of several variants simultaneously starting from January 2022.

This is for the Solomon Islands. But what about the security implications in the region and the wider Indo-Pacific? The upcoming 80th anniversary of the harsh Battle of Guadalcanal (island of the Solomon Islands archipelago) in September 1942 is a reminder that should make us reflect deeply on the lasting strategic importance of the Solomons. This is especially true of Australia, which is just over 3.200 kilometers away. The Solomon Islands span critical sea and communications routes to Australia, but are also of utmost strategic importance to Papua New Guinea's neighbors and the new nation emerging from its autonomous region of Bougainville, which lies just to the north. border with the Solomon Islands, as well as Fiji and New Zealand. New Zealand signed a "partnership agreement" with Fiji on March 29, following revelations of the existence of the Solomon Islands-China security agreement, and this follows a major update of defense cooperation between Fiji and Australia in mid-March 2022.

France itself is following the dynamics with concern, and after a brief crisis, due to the story of the submarine contract suspended by Australia, has maintained strong relations with the USA, Australia and New Zealand. The fear of Paris is that, despite the unionist motion having won the third and final referendum for the self-determination of New Caledonia, the ethnic vote that characterized it could be exploited to stir up the discontent of the kanaki towards France, fearful of losing control of the archipelago which has important deposits of the precious nickel, and for those who remember it, China is on the endless hunt for rare metals for industrial production with cutting-edge technologies. In any case, pending the next Paris rearmament program, a not insignificant slice will be destined to strengthen its military presence in the Indo-Pacific (French territories are also Polynesia and the islands of Wallis and Futuna), reduced to little light.

But other states in the region (for example Indonesia and the Philippines) also view Beijing's maneuvers with silent concern, all having good reasons to fear them, such as more or less large presences of Chinese communities, other potential drivers of crises such as ethnic-religious divisions, separatist movements, resources and deposits of strategic products (hydrocarbons and minerals), important economic and social developments but with serious internal regional imbalances.

Opinion is still uncertain about China's use of the security agreement, primarily whether or not to install a military base in the Solomon Islands. Sogavare, and those who weren't troubled by the deal, insist that China will not build a military base to project its power into the Southwest Pacific. Some experts discard the option considering that China is unlikely to build a naval base in the Solomon Islands because foreign military outposts are not the (only, so far) way Beijing operates. This is true, but only partially.

It is true that Djibouti is currently the only foreign base of the People's Liberation Army, but it is no secret that Beijing aims to have one on the African side of the Atlantic (Equatorial Guinea is being talked about as a possible site). However, China's past openings in Vanuatu in 2018 and Papua New Guinea in 2020, and activities at the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, at the port of Gwadar in Pakistan (the latter two, despite Sri Lanka's internal problems and difficult relations of Beijing with Rawalpindi, would be part of the so-called Chinese 'pearl necklace' with which, according to India, he should strangle her) and at the Ream naval base in Cambodia, the constant Chinese naval presence in the ports of Myanmar / Burma and now, potentially, the Solomon Islands, tell another story, albeit in the making (of course, nothing comparable to the USA which has of 759 military installations in 80 countries).

It is unlikely that such a provocative move as the construction of a Chinese military base will happen in the short term, especially due to the alarm raised and the harsh Australian reactions; but China continues to play a long and complex strategic game. Sogavare continued to try to quell the concerns saying "Australia remains our preferred partner and we will do nothing to undermine Australian national security", although such words are considered not very credible given the unscrupulousness of man.

Consequently, A recalibration of Pacific geopolitics is now needed. Meanwhile, the agreement between the Solomons and China has already had an impact on US and allied approaches to the Pacific (such as the recent agreements between Australia and New Zealand with Fiji). A case in point was the US Senate hearings on the Compact of Free Association (COFA) Negotiations held on March 29. That hearing heard reports from the Departments of State, Defense and Interior on the state of negotiations for the renewal of agreements between the US and the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau (all states already part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, given in temporary administration by the UN to the USA between 1947 and 1994, after having been respectively first German colonies and, after the First World War, mandates of the League of Nations entrusted to Japan until its defeat in 1945). These negotiations have not progressed significantly since December 2020 (and the current agreements will expire starting in 2023) and to give a boost to these negotiations, a diplomat, Ambassador Joseph Jun, has been appointed as special presidential envoy for the negotiations on the renewal of these agreements and not to leave openings for possible interference of Beijing, which, as we have seen, is also capable of acting with great speed and determination. In fact, just at the vigil of the important Quad meeting in Tokyo, the Chinese foreign minister Wany Yi, began his regional tour with a visit to the Solomons, with subsequent stops in Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

Even if it does not belong to the first line facing China (formed by South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines), the USA cannot allow spaces to open up in the 'second line' (which largely coincides with the archipelagos of the South Pacific) of penetrations to the Chinese navy and Washington, allies and partners must act quickly, also working in favor of inclusive economic and social policies that smooth out reasons for discontent and avoid losing opportunities. For example, the United States only announced in February 2022 that it had plans to reopen its Solomon Islands embassy, ​​which had been closed for budgetary reasons since 1993.

The broader Indo-Pacific chessboard remains a strategic priority for the US and President Biden's trip to South Korea and Japan, where he launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a colossal economic cooperation plan but with a clear reference to the contrast with China. Alongside the launch of this initiative, where there are elements that recall the Marshall Plan, Biden chaired a meeting of the Quad (real name is Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), a forum for political cooperation, which was born in 2008, but remained inactive until 2017, in which the USA, Australia, Japan and India.

Washington is counting heavily on the expansion and deepening of the Quad, even if India remains hesitant to establish a formal defense and security architecture (what some critics call the new SEATO), but fluctuations in international politics oblige to quick revisions. For example New Delhi, a large and consolidated buyer of Russian / Soviet military material, in light of the poor results given by these weapons systems in Ukraine, seems to reconsider its choices, including recent ones (at the end of last year it was signed an important contract between Russia and India) and to further expand its already important arms purchases, and to launch production programs in loco, made in the USA. But India's dimensions, including economic ones, oblige the subcontinent to act prudently with China, given the trade ties with Beijing and despite the military challenge; and India is not alone. In fact from Tokyo, Biden, alongside the firm tones with the threat to intervene militarily in defense of Taiwan, opened a glimmer on the thorny issue of customs duties on Chinese imports, trying to keep a path of dialogue open, touching a sensitive key for Beijing which is facing a heavy economic slowdown, a nightmare for its executives, always fearful of internal revolts .

One last event, the Australian federal elections, saw the prevalence of Labor who overthrew a long prevalence of conservatives and liberals, should change internal policies but not change the overall data of Canberra's position on the Indo-Pacific chessboard with the adhesion to Quad, AUKUS, ANZUS, and not even the sub-regional one; the attempt to block Chinese penetration into the small and weak states of the South Pacific remains a strategic problem and Prime Minister Tony Albanese, reacting immediately to Wang Yi's sudden visit to the Solomons, sent the newly appointed Foreign Minister Penny Weng to visit Fiji, as a visible sign of support for the small state (however, Australia, too, as USA, India, South Korea, Japan, France) have very important economic ties with Beijing.

Photo: Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China