Solomon Islands: placing a draft security agreement with China in a local context
The revelation in the past 24 hours of a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Honiara and Beijing over security-related matters has garnered international headlines and a concerned response from Canberra. Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said “we would clearly be concerned about any military bases being established” within 2,000 kilometers of Australia’s shores.
Anthony Veke, Solomon Islands Minister for Police, National Security and Corrections Services, had confirmed that an earlier agreement with China covering policing had already been signed on March 18. “Signing this MoU just shows the global community that we are building meaningful cooperation here, based on teamwork and seriousness to develop the Solomon Islands,” Veke explained. His focus is important, because first and foremost it is about strengthening the Solomon Islands.
It was Thursday’s disclosure of a new draft agreement covering broader security issues that became the focus of concern. Karen Galokale, Solomon Islands’ permanent secretary for the Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services, told Reuters news agency that: “We have a comprehensive security treaty with Australia on cooperation policewoman. If there is something with the PRC, it will be the same”. She added that the Solomon Islands also had similar agreements with New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
The challenge for Canberra is convincing the Pacific region that Australia has a strong approach to security needs in the region.
The revelation of the policing agreement and the proposed broader security memorandum of understanding has important ramifications.
First, it should come as much of a surprise to Australia or other Western countries. The shift in 2019 of diplomatic recognition by Honiara in Beijing away from Taipei would inevitably lead to an increase in Sino-Solomon cooperation. Such assistance would be urgent and precise after the riots in Honiara last November. Beijing only lends its version of police training and security assistance.
Second, the effort addresses capacity issues. These are capacity issues that Australia is unable to address or provide to the Solomon Islands in order to respond to its national security when threatened. Together with China, such arrangements will strengthen and strengthen the Solomon Islands Police Force. As one senior official told me, “What is important is Solomon Islands security and priority needs are first and foremost before geopolitics comes into play.”
Third, the recent MoU highlights the flaws in the legacy of the 14-year-old Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) which ended in 2017. The recent riots in Honiara saw Chinatown set on fire for the second time. The first case occurred in 2006. This showed that the Royal Solomon Islands Police remain ill-equipped to deal with such eventualities. The Solomon Islands government’s decision to seek help from Beijing, in addition to help previously requested from Canberra, is needed to further build police capacity.
Fourth, the Solomon Islands faces new and broader societal challenges. These include state and non-state actors within villages and across provinces. The state continues to face complex issues, sharp personalities and a difficult postcolonial history. Therefore, ongoing police reforms are important to ensure a strong and healthy link between the state and communities. If this connection is weak, security is compromised.
Finally, the continuation of negotiations with Beijing only outlines the style and amplifies the advanced nature of the PRC’s support. Australia’s current monopoly as ‘Police of the Pacific’ is certainly at stake. The challenge for Canberra is to convince the Pacific region that Australia has a strong approach to security needs in the region. In matters related to security, the Solomon Islands treats Australia on the same basis as it treats other countries. Above all, it ensures that its national interest prevails over any other consideration.