Island Geopolitics: What is Beijing’s Interest in the Solomon Islands?

In early April, two seemingly unrelated events took place – Argentina celebrated the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the war for the Malvinas Islands (at the first stage it was in favour of Buenos Aires, but in the end Britain drove out the Argentines and they capitulated), as well as the expression of concern of a number of countries about the impending signing of a treaty between China and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

In fact, both cases reflect a very important factor of global geopolitics – the importance of islands as strongholds, military bases, and sovereign (otherwise dependent) territories that are disputed. Although one of the first geopolitans, Halford Mackinder, used the concept of a World Island for Eurasia and Africa, and the British Isles or Cuba are also quite large subjects of international politics, in this report we will analyse the functions, role and significance of small islands, or even rocks and atolls. However, many cases are quite unique.

The case of the Malvinas (according to London – the Falkland Islands) is a pure challenge to sovereignty. On April 2, 1982, Argentina attempted to recapture these islands by force and was able to gain a foothold on them for some time. However, the government of Margaret Thatcher sent an aircraft carrier group to the conflict area, and for a number of objective reasons (indecision of the Argentine leadership, problems with ammunition and logistics), Argentina lost.

After 40 years, the issue is still unresolved. At the same time, most Latin American countries recognise the sovereignty of Argentina over the Malvinas (Russia, by the way, also), while the collective West is on the side of Britain. These islands are important for the security of the South Atlantic. Since Britain is a member of NATO, its presence at the borders of the continent’s cone (which opens the way to Antarctica) is a constant concern for countries that do not have sympathy for Anglo-Saxon policies.

A case closer to us geographically is the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea, which formally belong to Finland, but have an autonomous status. In addition, they have their own customs jurisdiction, a separate parliament and government.

The islands have demilitarised status. The question arises: what will happen if Finland joins NATO? Will these islands remain without a military contingent, or will their status be reviewed, as happened with the Swedish island of Gotland relatively recently (clearly under the influence of artificially inflated Russophobia)?

The United States is still the main expert in manipulating the islands. And the foundations for this were laid in the 19th century. The founder of Atlanticism, Alfred Mahan, in an article from 1890 entitled “The United States Looking Outward” pointed out that “Unsettled political conditions, such as exist in Haiti, Central America, and many of the Pacific islands, especially the Hawaiian group, when combined with great military or commercial importance, as is the case with most of these positions, involve, now as always, dangerous germs of quarrel, against which it is at least prudent to be prepared.

Undoubtedly, the general temper of nations is more averse from war than it was of old. If no less selfish and grasping than our predecessors, we feel more dislike to the discomforts and sufferings attendant upon a breach of peace; but to retain that highly valued repose and the undisturbed enjoyment of the returns of commerce, it is necessary to argue upon somewhat equal terms of strength with an adversary.”

And then: “Already France and England are giving to ports held by them a degree of artificial strength uncalled for by their present importance. They look to the near future. Among the islands and on the mainland there are many positions of great importance, held now by weak or unstable states. Is the United States willing to see them sold to a powerful rival? But what right will she invoke against the transfer? She can allege but one, that of her reasonable policy supported by her might.” [i]

Now Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean, and in the Pacific, Guam, Hawaii and a number of islands and atolls to the south of them serve the United States for a variety of purposes. Guam was captured from Spain during the war in 1898. It is now a US possession, meaning the island is not part of the United States and is “officially listed as an organised non-aligned Territory of the United States.”

At the same time, the US House of Representatives has one delegate from Guam, although its functions are not entirely clear, since it does not have the right to vote. Apparently, this is a kind of symbolic handout from Washington, so that local residents are not particularly outraged, because there is a movement for independence on the island.

And Washington has a lot to lose – it is now home to the largest strategic US military base in the Pacific Ocean. US military personnel are concentrated mainly at Andersen Air Base and Apra Harbour Naval Base. Considering the short distances in the Pacific Ocean (for example, to the coast of China – about 5,000 kilometres, to Australia a little less), the Pentagon will try to hold this outpost.

The United States also has its own bases in foreign territories. The island of Taiwan is often called the largest unsinkable US aircraft carrier. But the northernmost base of the US military – Thule, is located in Greenland, which belongs to Denmark, but is ten times larger than this kingdom in the northern part of Europe.

In the 20th century, the United States used some islands to test nuclear weapons – the notorious Bikini atolls (by the way, discovered by a Russian captain) and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands took on 67 nuclear warheads. Many indigenous residents of neighbouring islands have died from cancer, and the radioactive background still exceeds the permissible norm. [ii]

No less interesting things can be found in the Mediterranean. The Greek island of Kastellorizo is located two kilometres off the southern coast of Turkey and hundreds of kilometres off the Greek coast, including other major islands such as Rhodes and Cyprus.

The group of islands, which includes Castellorizo, Ro and Strongyli, is very important for the exclusive economic zone of Greece, as it is the easternmost territory of Greece, and according to UNCLOS, as well as customary international law, Greece can claim most of the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

In addition to this group of islands, there are others in the Aegean Sea that are located near Turkey, which causes the problem of overlapping territorial waters and airspace of the two countries. [iii]

Every year, there are incidents between the two countries due to the fact that Turkish warplanes regularly invade Greek territory and in response, Greece sends its fighter jets to intercept. In the 90s, there were even cases of victims of pilots on both sides. So far, this issue has not been resolved.

A fairly close topic is the air defence zone (ADZ). Thus, changes in international law over the past few decades have transformed the parameters of East Asian air defence zones and related jurisdictional claims. Japan and South Korea’s air defence zones were established prior to the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, which established that territorial waters/airspace extend 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the country’s coast, and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles (370 km).

The sunken Ieodo Rock in the Yellow Sea, 149 km from the South Korean island of Jeju, was not previously included in the South Korean air defence zone due to a simple oversight. Seoul extended its air defence zone in 2013 because it was located in international waters and not in the South Korean air defence zone at the time of the creation of the air defence zone. South Korea’s expansion of this zone has meant that its air defence zone overlaps with Japan’s over Ieodo, although there is no disagreement between Japan and South Korea on this issue.

However, while international law states that a submerged rock outside a state’s territorial waters cannot be the subject of a dispute over that territory, China and South Korea have long disputed the right of jurisdiction of the maritime zone around Ieodo, which covers the overlapping air defence zones of the two countries.

On November 23, 2013, China achieved an established degree of control over the airspace in the East China Sea through the establishment of its first air defence zone. China has designed its air defence zone so that it overlaps the air defence zones of Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

South Korea and Taiwan, despite disputed territorial and maritime jurisdictions such as the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (China’s Diaoyu) and the waters around Ieodo, which has sparked protests from Japanese, South Korean and American officials. [iv]

South Korea has asked China to redesign its air defence zone to eliminate this overlap, but China has refused to make any changes. In December 2013, South Korea responded by expanding its air defence zone to include Ieodo. None of these three countries currently recognises China’s air defence zone.

China, in general, which has put forward a unique strategy of creating artificial islands and declaring sovereignty over them. This was the case for the previously uninhabited Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. [v]

Within the framework of the geopolitical concept of the “Pearl Necklace”, China needs the islands as transit bases and strongholds. Therefore, Beijing actively enters into lease agreements with island states and offers its services. In Sri Lanka, China helped build facilities in the port of Hambantota, and since there was no money to pay, a long-term lease agreement was signed. [vi]

But let’s go back to the Solomon Islands, where we started publishing. So far, only a draft agreement has been prepared.

“The six-article ‘Framework Agreement’ is laden with vaguely defined terms and powers that would permit enormous PRC inroads into the Solomon Islands. It would allow China to operate large-scale and varied military and intelligence operations and become heavily involved in maintaining civic order through the deployment of ‘police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces.’

The Solomon Islands’ sovereignty would supposedly be protected by thinly detailed triggers and powers controlling Chinese intervention, such as the power of activation for the agreement and ‘consent’ for Chinese naval visits being retained by the Solomon Islands’ government. Yet the inclusion of the phrase that supposedly gives both nations power to act ‘according to its own needs’ has escalated concerns about what might result if this agreement comes into force.

The agreement would also provide all Chinese personnel ‘legal and judicial immunity,’ and costs would be decided ‘through friendly consultation by the Parties.’

Initially, the veracity of the leaked document was unclear until the Solomon Islands government officially acknowledged on March 25 that they were seeking to ‘broaden security cooperation with more partners.’ They also confirmed that the PRC Framework Agreement was not yet signed though the Solomon Islands government now appears determined to finalise it despite growing regional pressure.

The Solomon Islands has been in a state of uneasy calm since regional peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and New Guinea began entering the country on November 26, 2021, at the request of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. This request for a return of international peacekeepers came in the wake of deadly riots in the capital of Honiara that broke out two days earlier and escalated to the point that Sogavare’s official residence and the nation’s parliament building were on the brink of being breached by rioters.

The riots were sparked by long-standing grievances between the most populous and largest Solomon Islands province of Malaita (that encompasses the entire island of that name), which has also been chronically under-resourced by national governments. This disparity has fuelled long-standing tensions between Malaita, successive national governments, and residents of the main island of Guadalcanal (where Honiara is situated), where many Malaitans often need to settle to find work.

Tensions erupted into armed conflict between Malaitans and the people of Guadalcanal in 1998. The situation deteriorated to the point that the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) entered the nation at the request of the then-prime minister in 2003 and stayed until 2017. At this time, Australia signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.

Unresolved tensions between Malaita and national governments were inflamed again in September 2019, when Prime Minister Sogavare dramatically switched the nation’s 36-year allegiance to Taiwan, without consultation, to the PRC. Malaitan politicians prominently opposed this decision, pledging their ongoing support for Taiwan.

They accused the Sogavare government of withdrawing development projects and other forms of support for Malaita Province in retaliation for their pro-Taiwan stance, which triggered the unrest. The attacks targeted a community of Chinese origin in Honiara. And the framework agreement provides for ‘protection’ of Chinese personnel and ‘major projects’ as a trigger for Chinese intervention.

When regional peacekeepers responded to Sogavare’s request for assistance, Maliatan leaders strongly opposed the intervention as they claimed it propped up a deeply corrupt and deeply unpopular leader.

The layering of PRC-Taiwan tensions onto domestic strains increased again in December 2021, when Sogavare accused rioters of being ‘agents of Taiwan’ and announced that China would be sending six police trainers with ‘non-lethal’ equipment to work with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

The fast-approaching 80th anniversary of the epic World War II battle for Guadalcanal underscores the singular importance of the Solomon Islands to secure Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea (particularly the emerging nation of Bougainville that lies just north of the Solomon Islands’ border), New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and the region beyond the Solomon Islands’ nearest neighbours.

It is worth reflecting on how costly that battle was to all sides with Solomon Islanders still contending with residual and dangerous military detritus. Though the security landscape has altered drastically in the eight decades since the Battle of Guadalcanal, the fundamentals that made that battle critical to turning the tide of the war and preventing an imminent Japanese invasion of Australia remain unchanged.

The Solomon Islands lie 2,000 miles (or under four hours by plane) east of northern Australia. They traverse critical shipping and communication lanes, so, as in 1942, their control by a hostile power is a threat to the defences of Australia and beyond.

The Framework Agreement would permit a considerable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military presence in the Solomon Islands (civil disorder would likely provide the pretext for PLA entry in the Solomon Islands) and it would permit the PLA Navy routine ship visits and logistical replenishment.

Regional reactions, led by Australia and New Zealand, have been strongly opposed to the agreement. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern described it as ‘gravely concerning’. Not only does the proposed agreement come in the wake of the regional cooperation and support for the Solomon Islands government expressed in the sending of peacekeepers last November, it also accompanies other demonstrations of support.

This includes the February 2022 announcement during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the Pacific that the United States would be reopening an embassy in Honiara shuttered since 1993. At the time of the announcement, Blinken said the move was to prevent China from becoming ‘strongly embedded’ in the South Pacific nation.

Facing a tough reelection fight where China relations are a major factor, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has received criticism that his climate change policies and a decline in foreign aid, particularly to the Solomon Islands, have eroded Australia’s influence for China’s gain.

Morrison’s government has prominently used the term ‘Pacific family’ as a way of expressing the deep ties between traditional Pacific actors that is implicitly exclusionary of China. The deployment of this sentimental rhetoric does not appear to have succeeded as a strategy.

There is no question that the emergence of the Framework Agreement is a bitter pill for all nations who have been working together in recent months to counter China’s influence in the Pacific through various means. There is no escaping the perception that this increased interest in the Pacific is coming too late.

This recent surge of activity is evident in the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced in September 2021 and the Indo-Pacific Strategy launched by the Biden White House in February 2022. Some commentators are now calling for a complete overhaul in strategy toward the Solomon Islands, particularly relating to Prime Minister Sogavare and his government.” [vii]

Thus, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, on behalf of its expert, gave away the real goals and interests of the United States – this is maintaining its control over the Pacific Ocean. And within the framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, we see an attempt to expand the zone of influence. [viii]

In fact, the various islands may not only be bases for aircraft or naval forces. If the sovereignty of a state is established over even a small point of land in the ocean, then according to international law, this sovereignty extends to the exclusive economic zone, as well as to the airspace.

The water surface can be used for catching seafood, and the sea shelf – for the search and extraction of natural resources-hydrocarbons, minerals and rare earth metals. The depletion of traditional mines in the mining industry of various states forces numerous companies to increasingly turn to this promising type of natural resource extraction.

The “blue economy”, as modern researchers call projects related to marine resources, even if they are located deep under water, has a serious potential for enrichment. And the presence of islands greatly facilitates the development of the seabed, since it allows to place equipment, personnel, store and process resources there, as well as carry out further logistics in accordance with your interests.

This, in turn, encourages countries to take the protection of their islands and overseas territories more seriously. France, for example, has the islands of Wallis and Futuna in Oceania, which are formally the kingdoms of Alo and Sigave, but are part of the French Republic under the terms of the protectorate treaty of 1887.

Because of this, France claims a trade, economic, political and, accordingly, military presence in the Pacific Ocean. And in general, the aggregate of France’s maritime possessions is more than 11 million square kilometres, which is twenty (!) times more than the continental territory of France.

In the first place in terms of sea possessions are the United States, the real lords of the seas. It is significant that the availability of resources can cause political tension between the metropolis and the provinces. So, after learning that the French mining group Eramet is planning an underwater development of the Kulolasi crater, where there are deposits of rare earth metals, the population of Wallis and Futuna, along with their rulers, protested to Paris and even threatened to secede.

And how many more such micro-islands are located in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and even larger entities are not averse to transforming their economies under suitable conditions and joining the race for rare earths and other resources from the seabed.

These complex factors have always been associated with islands, but in the current era of globalisation and at the same time the transformation of the geopolitical world order, their role and status are significantly increasing.

__________

[i] Alfred T. Mahan, “The United States Looking Outward,” Atlantic Monthly, LXVI (December, 1890), 816-24.

[ii] https://phys.org/news/2019-07-radioactivity-marshall-islands-higher-chernobyl.html

[iii] http://www.turkishweekly.net/pdf/aegean_sea.pdf

[iv] https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ADIZ-Report.pdf

[v] https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2015/04/17/6644201.shtml

[vi] https://www.ng.ru/world/2021-02-25/6_8090_%20srilanka.html

[vii] https://www.csis.org/analysis/framework-agreement-china-transforms-solomon-islands-pacific-flashpoint

[viii] https://www.fondsk.ru/news/2018/07/04/indo-tihookeanskij-region-ssha-v-prostranstve-dvuh-okeanov-46398.html


By Leonid Savin
Source: Katehon think tank. Geopolitics & Tradition

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