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Are Chinese military bases a threat to Australia, South Pacific nations?

Zee News logo Zee News 09-05-2022 Zee News
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Hong Kong: April`s signing of a secretive security cooperation agreement between the Solomon Islands and China understandably created a huge stir in Australia and the South Pacific. The deal could potentially pave the way for a full-blown Chinese military base in the Solomons, but how much of a threat would such an installation pose?

Since World War II, Australia, France, New Zealand and the USA have been comfortable as undisputed "masters" of the South Pacific. 

For decades, no outside power has been able to make their way in, but that is changing with Chinese economic and diplomatic largesse. Via economic aid and investment, China has spread its influence wide across the Pacific, sometimes for the better, but often not. 

In the Solomon Islands, for example, commercial logging companies - primarily Malaysian and Chinese - are decimating the islands` forests; some 90% of this timber goes to China. As so often happens in history, the flag follows the trade. In 2019, China was Solomon Islands` top import and export destination, with a total value near USD515 million. 

Solomon Islands shifted recognition from Taiwan to China 

Solomon Islands shifted recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Out of 16 Pacific nations, only the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu retain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Chinese companies around the world represent the tail of the dragon, but they are all masterminded by the dragon`s head in Beijing. 

Chinese investors are in the vanguard, but Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials and organs inexorably follow.In the Pacific, Beijing is capitalizing on inherent weaknesses in smaller nations, bullying the gullible and satiating the greedy with money. It knows that regulatory frameworks are too weak in places like Solomon Islands to resist pressure. 

Political systems in a number of Pacific nations are already fragile, and Chinese activities undermine their democracies.Interestingly, Fiji was the first Pacific country to sign a security agreement with China, with a memorandum of understanding on police cooperation in 2011, and one in 2014 on defense issues like border control, equipment and training. However, those agreements, revolvingmostly around transnational crime, are very different to Honiara`s open-ended commitments to China.

Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese domestic and foreign policy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, wrote: "...Pacific island nations often lack the capacity to address these challenges. In some, notably Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, CCP political interference may have so weakened democracy that there appears to be next to no political will to examine China`s interference activities.

"Brady continued: "China`s broad approach to political interference makes extensive use of assets, disinformation, `useful idiots` and proxies". These efforts, including "elite capture", are supervised by the United Work Front Department of the CCP. They routinely target local government and local authorities rather than the national level where approaches might be more robustly resisted. The CCP terms this "using the local to surround the central; using thecountryside to surround the cities".

The Kiwi academic noted: "United Front Work is designed to corrode and corrupt democratic political systems, to weaken communities and divide them against each other, and to erodethe critical voice of the media. It turns elites into clients of the CCP through financial and other inducements. It`s also used to develop asset relationships, to access sensitive technology and to promote the CCP`s foreign policy agenda."

Riots in Honiara helped China to obtain greater access to Solomon Islands 

China certainly took advantage of the riots in Honiara in late 2021 to obtain greater access to Solomon Islands. At that time, China requested permission to import weaponry such as ten 5.8mm assault rifles, two light machine guns and a 7.62mm sniper rifle for a ten-man plain-clothes security team to guard its embassy in Honiara.

Then, in February, six Chinese policemen began training the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, even conducting firearms training using replica assault rifles mysteriously delivered via a Chinese logging ship.

A security presence in the Solomons would certainly allow China to better protect its interests and expatriate citizens there. This aligns with China`s amendment of its Law on NationalDefense, which permits the government to protect development interests around the world. The law is rather ambiguous, so that Beijing is left with plenty of options for action and escalation.

According to a leaked draft of the security cooperation framework agreement, "Solomon Islands may, according to its 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."

It continued, "China 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."

The highly secretive agreement has an initial duration of five years, but will be automatically extended for five-year periods unless specifically terminated by either party. Although there is no specific mention of a military base, it seems inevitable given that the agreement discusses logistical support.This could lead to a similar arrangement to what China has in Djibouti, where PLA troops are stationed at a sizeable military base, and where Chinese warships and aircraft routinely visit. Such a base would be just 2,000km from Australia`s Queensland coast. 

Both parties insist there is no plan to establish a military base, China rubbishing it as "utterly misinformation deliberately spread with political motive".However, can such promises be trusted? A leaked Chinese document from 2020 demonstrated that China was discussing the possibility of a military base even back then.

This letter from AVIC International Project Engineering Company, addressed to Leslie Kikolo, the former premier of Isobel Province, described "our intent to study the opportunity to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People`s Liberation Army Navy [PLAN], for Isobel Province with exclusive rights for 75 years".

Earlier, in November 2019, just a few months after Honiara switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, AVIC Commercial Aircraft signed a memorandum of understanding to upgrade 35 airstrips in the Solomons to turn it into a regional "aeronautical hub". In return, the nation was to purchase six AVIC-manufactured aircraft. 

However, this seems never to have proceeded, perhaps because of the COVID-19 pandemic. China`s state-controlled AVIC is tightly entwined with the PLA, so scoping out airfields for PLA use could easily occur. Undoubtedly, the prospect of a Chinese naval base is threatening. 

China may claim now that will not happen, but there is huge potential for "mission creep", with a dual-use base that China claims is not a military installation, but which performs this function regardless.

US warns against military installation in Solomon Islands

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a base would be a "red line", but did not elaborate on what this meant. Daniel Kritenbrink, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also warned, "We told Solomon Islands leadership that the United States would respond if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities or a military installation in Solomon Islands."

China`s overarching strategy must be remembered, which is to displace the USA as the predominant power in the Western Pacific. This also incorporates the goal of breaking out from behind the so-called First Island Chain, with footholds farther afield desirable. Indeed, Solomon Islands, which was the site of intense battles in World War II, offers a good location from which China can threaten longitudinal and latitudinal lines of communication, both on the sea and in the air, between the USA and allies like Australia.A base there, permitting presence patrols and intelligence gathering, would complicate Australian defense planning. 

Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, agreed that there is an important strategic purpose to China`s actions. 

"There is a much broader, deep-seated strategic-military angle. The South Pacific overlooks the vast maritime space between the so-called First Island Chain, which encloses the Chinese `near seas` such as the East and South China Seas, and the Second Island Chain that pivots chiefly around Guam." China is already confident about operating militarily inside the First Island Chain, since it can call upon land-based assets, including ballistic and cruise missiles. However, it needs to do more than that if it wishes to deter or prevent American forces from intervening in any conflict between it and Taiwan. 

The PLA thus needs the ability to intervene against American forces coming from places like Guam, Hawaii and the continental USA. This activity must take place outside the First Island Chain in places like the Philippine Sea. Koh also noted that the deep waters of the Western Pacific are ideal for Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines.

Such vessels need wide-open spaces to hide and to launch their deadly cargoes against the west coast of the USA. To this end, a vantage point in the South Pacific gives the PLAN an advantage, such as resupplying and supporting naval vessels. Koh also noted that a base in the Solomon Islands could also benefit its Antarctic presence. Research vessels can stop off on their way to and from the icy continent, for instance. China already sends space-tracking ships to the Pacific, especially for satellite launches.

In February, the PLAN sent its first-ever ships to the South Pacific on a humanitarian assistance mission. Two vessels delivered aid to Tonga in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami. Koh said such a distant base in the Solomon Islands has huge drawbacks though. 

"A military base in the South Pacific would in itself pose more a challenge than an advantage to China. A solitary base in the Solomon Islands, for example, would be gravely exposed and outnumbered by the long-entrenched American, Australian and French military presence in the neighbourhood. If this base is meant to send a political signal that China can have such an installation too, its strategic utility is likely to be outweighed by the drawbacks."

The Singaporean added, "Overseas military bases constitute not just an asset, but also a liability. In times of conflict, a postulated Chinese military base in Solomon Islands is morelikely a strategic liability than an asset. Isolated, far from the Chinese mainland seaboard, this outpost becomes vulnerable, as it falls within the strike range of American and Australian military assets stationed in Australia."The tyranny of geography means Chinese mainland support for this outpost will become arduous, and vulnerable in itself to adversarial air and maritime interdiction. Unless this outpost is part of a network of mutually supporting Chinese military bases, in times of war such an installation generates little return on investment, but generates high costs instead."

Koh concluded: "Unless the Chinese authorities have completely lost their strategic and operational acumen in assessing the merits and demerits of an overseas military base in Solomon Islands, it is more plausible to expect Beijing to seek dual-use facilities that would be less controversial. This would allow it to maintain goodwill in the South Pacific by shaping the image of an external party that comes bearing gifts instead of nefarious strategic intent, and yet allowing for a wide berth of flexibility to fulfil those peacetime developmental interests."

But it is not just the military facet that is of concern, for China could help the Solomon Islands government to "keep the peace" by conducting surveillance on political opponents and controlling information. When one considers China`s treatment of Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its brutal methods are to be feared.

China must brave intense socio-political friction from Solomon citizens. While Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare`s government might wholeheartedly welcome Beijing and its slush funds, many there are strongly against Chinese interference. Many believe that Sogavare is after enforcers to preserve his own hold on power. 

The country has numerous scars from previous conflicts, and the risk of Chinese paramilitary police providing internal security in the Solomon Islands would throw fuel on the fire. China has already out-manoeuvred Canberra and Washington DC in the Solomon Islands. 

The USA is belatedly reopening an embassy in Honiara, but this was far too late to stop the China Solomon Islands deal. Now all that they can do is keep China`s activities under that agreement under close scrutiny. 

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