The recently signed security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China has alarmed the US and its allies, bringing concerns about China’s military facility in the Solomon Islands. US-China tensions over a strategic choke point in the South Pacific Islands are part of a new tug of war between the two nations, where China is actively pursuing vital ports, canals, and islands worldwide.
The question is what makes Solomon islands with only 800,000 residents so important as a choke point?
Peter Hartcher, a Political and International Editor at Sydney Morning Herald, wrote in his article that Solomon islands is located at a critical point in the flow of information between Australia and New Zealand. It is a power to access to the United States which is Australia’s lifeline.
Moreover, Australians and Americans see the islands as part of a defense shield that extends from Papua New Guinea all the way to Vanuatu and Fiji and China is making dents in it.
Kurt Campbell, National Security Coordinator at the Indo-Pacific region, warned that the U.S. would have a response.
He said, “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.”
The U.S. will follow developments closely in consultation with regional partners.
Why is the China-Solomon Islands security agreement an alarm to the U.S. and allies?
In 2017, China built its first and only overseas military base in Djibouti, an East African country. Concerns that China may be moving to open its second base in the Solomon Islands have rung alarm bells among the U.S. and its allies.
According to Ambassador Dan Kritenbrink, the agreement may have regional security implications not only for the U.S. but also for allies and partners throughout the region.
In response to the Australian newspaper, Kritenbrink stated that the U.S. and allies’ concerns related to the agreement’s complete lack of transparency.
He questioned, “What precisely are the motivations behind the agreement? What exactly are China’s objectives and the like? I think they’re completely unclear because this agreement has not been scrutinized or reviewed or subjected to any kind of consultation or approval process by anyone else. So, I think the lack of transparency is a fundamental concern.”
In addition, the Guardian cited Kritenbrink as saying that Solomon’s Prime Minister would “only share the details with China’s permission.” He thought it is also a source of concern.
Sogavare assured the American delegation that there would be no such Chinese base, presence, or power projection capability.
However, Sogavare’s assurances were not enough to reassure the U.S. The ambassador said that only a very small circle of people had seen the agreement.
According to the Geopolitical, Australia fears that in the coming years, Chinese bases deep in the Pacific will cut off Australia’s key trade routes and prevent it from coordinating with allies on security issues.
On April 1, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, responded to a question from ABC Insiders regarding trust in Sogavare’s assurances.
She said, “Overwhelmingly, we believe that the Pacific family is best placed as responders to security issues in the Pacific region.”
What are some of China’s potential challenges?
Masahiro Matsumura, St. Andrew’s University Professor, told Nikkei Asia that China’s ambitions are similar to those of the Japanese imperial navy back in the day. He said that Beijing wants to gain strategic ground to consolidate its position.
Professor Matsumura said that China may experience the same difficulties as Japan did.
He said that Japan’s failure in Guadalcanal was due to a lack of fuel and food for its forces at the time.
According to Matsumura, Beijing’s goals may be more political than a possible military war. He added that, with countries like Palau recognizing Taipei but not Beijing, China’s move in the Solomon Islands may be aimed at forcing these neighbors to change their positions.
Beside the South-Pacific region, where does the Chinese government pay attention?
China appears to be interested in more than just the South Pacific as a choke point.
Chinese state-owned firms are notably focusing on the development of infrastructure around key marine chokepoints such as the Panama Canal and the Strait of Magellan.
General Laura Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 24, “In Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, [China] has abused commercial agreements at host country ports for military functions. Our concern is that they are attempting to do the same right here in this region, close to our homeland.”
In her statement, Laura includes a number of projects related to the Panama Canal in which China-based enterprises are either involved in or bidding on. These projects include port operations at both ends of the canal, water management, and a logistics park.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the China-based Landbridge Group acquired control of Margarita Island, Panama’s main port on the Atlantic side, in a $900 million deal in 2016.
On October 18, 2018, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Latin American governments to be aware of China’s Belt and Road investments in the region during a visit to Panama.
For more than a decade, China has been strengthening its economic, political, and military connections with Latin America.
CSIS also reported in May 2021 that China Construction Americas used 1.4 billion dollars in Chinese loans to construct the Amador Convention Center on the Pacific side.
Moreover, Laura Richardson stated that there are “some of the dozens of [China]-funded port projects throughout the region that could be leveraged for military purposes.”
For example, the [China]-run Neuquén space research center in Argentina has the capability to detect and target American satellites from its location.
Also, a state-owned company from China is getting permission to build installations near the port of Ushuaia. According to Laura, it would give China a presence in the Magellan Strait and increase access to Antarctica.
Besides, a Chinese investor with ties to the Chinese government is expanding and operating El Salvador’s 3 billion dollar La Union port through bribes and corruption.
This 1,700-square-mile project is strategically located at the intersection of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Nicaraguan territories.
China wants to turn global ports and merchant ships into weapons.
In 2019, Christopher R. O’Dea, a lifetime member of the Naval War College Foundation, released an article titled “How China Weaponized the Global Supply Chain” in the National Review.
According to Christopher, ports, containers, and the internet are now Beijing’s means to project power. In addition, China is weaponizing the global supply chain, using global ports to turn container ships into warships.
Christopher wrote in his article, “The vessels of China’s state-owned shipping companies no longer merely carry merchandise. Sailing to a global network of ports under Chinese control, they’re carrying Chinese power.”
Through global supply systems, the article reveals China’s objectives to control the world.