Stay Calm and Consider 5 Steps on Solomon Islands

Opinion

Peter Leahy AC retired as a Lieutenant General after a 37-year career in the Australian Army after a 6 year appointment as the Chief of the Australian Army. He also served as the Deputy Chief of Army. After retiring, he was appointed as a Professor and Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

View all articles by Peter Leahy

OPINION — In a world of hybrid warfare, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and threats from and through space – geography is still important.  Witness the concern when the Solomon Islands recently signed a security agreement with China. 

It’s thought that this agreement will allow the presence of Chinese military and police personnel, permission for Chinese vessels to replenish supplies at ports in the Solomon’s and to the extreme worry of some – that it will pave the way for a Chinese military base on the island nation.

Geography, like history – can’t be forgotten or dismissed.  The Japanese occupied the Solomon Islands in WWII.  Their aim was to protect the flank of their offensive in New Guinea and establish a base for interdicting allied supply lines across the Pacific. Occupation of the broad archipelago to our North and East gave them the opportunity to invade Australia.

The Solomon Islands are less than 2,000km from Australia’s Northeast coast and sit squarely astride Australia’s Sea Lines of Communications to the United States. They also straddle important submarine cable networks. 

We should be wary of a Chinese base of operations able to project military power this close to Australia. This agreement also gives China an increased capability to develop their diplomatic and economic power throughout Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

In geostrategic terms, the Solomon Islands form part of a ‘second island chain’ stretching from Japan through Guam and Palau to its southern extremity in Micronesia. 

This could act as a defence line against a Chinese breakout from the South China Sea into the Pacific.

The United States immediately reacted to the news of the agreement. In a high-level visit to the Solomons, the US warned that if China were allowed to establish a military base, then the US would respond.  They also announced an expansion of their diplomatic and aid efforts in the country and more broadly across the Region. 

Australia, in an immediate escalation of the rhetoric, warned that a base would be a red line and that unspecified action would be taken. This stance has been unhelpful.

How should Australia react?

First, make our own use of geography.  An allied naval base in PNG would complicate resupply and support to any Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands.  Australia has a current agreement with PNG to support the development of the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. 

Current plans for Lombrum are for a modest redevelopment.  Discussions should be commenced, with PNG, on a more substantial redevelopment to allow for an enhanced Australian and potentially a United States presence.


Read also Australia Must End its Pacific Stupor Before it’s Too Late by Nick Warner, former Director-General of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence


Second, remain calm and maintain our present support and aid commitments to the Solomon Islands.  China has introduced competition into the aid ecosystem in the region and it is likely that other island Nations will seek their support. It is clear from experience in other parts of the world, that Chinese aid is not free money. It can often have a restraining and damaging impact on the recipient country.

We should make it known that Australia is here for the long run and is a dependable and reliable part of the neighbourhood. Under these conditions it might be anticipated that after experiencing the true nature of Chinese support the Solomons might revert to the present arrangements.


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Third, focus on the Pacific Islands Forum and reenergise and properly fund the Pacific Step-up.  The Pacific Island Forum is an important forum for development and cooperation.  A continued focus on support, openness and transparency is required.  This should focus on Australia’s attitude towards climate change and the sovereign rights of all Forum nations, including decisions on aid partners and basing rights.  Another step should include regular intelligence briefings to explain Chinese intent and actions.

Fourth, review our current capabilities, force posture and basing options. Australia’s defence focus has historically been to the North. The potential for an air and maritime threat from the Northeast requires a review of our defence capabilities and disposition.

Fifth, establish operational confidence building measures in anticipation that both Australian and Chinese security and defence forces may be operating in close proximity.  In the event of civil unrest in Honiara it is likely that Chinese police will have a specific mandate for protecting Chinese citizens. This will be a complicated environment and procedures must be developed and followed to ensure no clashes or unintended consequences occur.

Last, don’t blame our intelligence agencies, diplomats or politicians. The Solomon Islands Government, for both external and internal political reasons, has been building up to this action for some time. Just because you know a sovereign country might do something, doesn’t mean you can stop it.

The concerns over the Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands has occurred during an election campaign.  It will be difficult enough to deal with the consequences of this Chinese move without the melodramas of politicians on the rampage.  Let’s stay calm.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business.

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