25 Mar 2022
Not too late, but Australia must reach out to Solomon Islands now
Beijing’s interest in Pacific military bases is to make it harder for the US to move forces across the sea and closer to the Chinese mainland.
This is a modern version of Japan’s wartime strategy: protect the homeland by dispersing your own forces and hit the enemy’s supply lines as they try to get closer.
A bonus for China is that a military base in the Solomon Islands would complicate Australia’s defence.
The battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 is remembered as the first major fight between aircraft carriers, but it was fought in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Japanese forces lodging in the Solomon Islands.
Geography doesn’t change. Imagine a point, say 15 years from now, when Australia has built its nuclear submarine port on the east coast.
Scott Morrison says that this port will “enable regular visits from the United States’ and United Kingdom’s nuclear-powered submarines”.
If China establishes a military presence in the Solomons, we could in 15 years see People’s Liberation Army maritime surveillance aircraft using Honiara to keep a permanent surveillance cap over our east coast.
Beijing could have installed signals intelligence systems able to suck up electronic emissions from Cairns to Melbourne and an over-the-horizon radar system to track ship and aircraft movements.
What if China covertly brought into the Solomons anti-aircraft missile batteries or a stock of sea mines able to be laid by Chinese “civilian” fishing boats?
Some may see this as exaggerating the threat, but Xi Jinping does not lack strategic imagination. A Chinese military base in Honiara crosses a line that Canberra cannot permit. Moreover, Washington will share these concerns and expect Australia to find a way to stop this agreement being finalised.
The Australian national security establishment will be worried and will be looking for ways to dissuade the Solomon Island government from agreeing to the deal.
The broader context is decades of Australian benign neglect of the region.
In truth we don’t have a close or privileged relationship with many Island governments.
Based on DFAT’s latest figures, Solomon Islands has $244m invested in Australia, compared to only $70m worth of Australian investments there.
China is the Solomon Islands’ top export destination, taking 66.8 per cent of Honiara’s exports. Australia languishes at 13th place, taking only 0.9 per cent of goods.
Australia’s biggest interest in the Solomon Islands is low-cost seasonal labour. We shouldn’t be surprised if Honiara concludes that, for all the talk about being family, Australia is just not that engaged. We turn up with police and soldiers when Honiara riots, but China turns up, and stays, with bags of money.
The good news is that the Solomon Islands is a lively and loud democracy and there will be plenty of people in parliament and in the country offended by a draft treaty that cedes so much unchecked power to China.
It is possible that the agreement will be voted down in Honiara’s national parliament.
The onus is on Australia to come up with a compelling reason for Honiara to see us as their best possible security partner.
The offer to establish an Australian naval base would be a good start. How about jointly offering with the Americans a series of long-term military construction, engineering and medical visits to help the country’s decaying infrastructure?
The Americans do a superb job of linking state National Guard units to small countries, building relationships through regular deployments doing civil construction work. Why not designate ADF reserve units to similar roles?
In earlier years, the Defence reaction was to oppose the idea of naval basing or engaging in engineering or construction tasks other than in response to natural disasters. Now we have a strategic need to change that mindset.
This amounts to yet another task for the Defence checklist and another reason why our military spending needs to double from its current 2.1 per cent floor. Consider it the price of regional leadership. The Chinese will eat our lunch for us if we can’t or won’t make the effort ourselves.