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#9 - In Brief - The Struggle for the Solomons - Competition in Oceania
In an update to Vermilion’s previous article, the government of the Solomon Islands confirmed on March 31st that members of government had initialed (but not signed) elements of a bilateral security cooperation framework with the People’s Republic of China. Prime Minister Sogavare has insisted this framework only pertains to Solomon Islands domestic security and is not meant to duplicate the relationship the archipelagic country has with Australia. However, the fact that the framework allows for PLAN vessels to conduct logistic replenishment in Solomon Islands takes the country one step closer to hosting a PLAN naval base.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
As Vermilion wrote previously, the likely PRC end state is a full-fledged naval base in Solomon allowing the PLAN to maintain presence far forward of the second island chain and deep into the Pacific. PLAN warships operating from Guadalcanal would be able to contest sea lines of communication vital to both Australia and the US. Since it is the same geography, PRC strategy in the region is an echo of Imperial Japanese strategy during World War II.
While the government in Honiara maintains that a naval base is not on the table, most PRC deals are kept under the table until the very last moment or hidden for an extended time. Washington should be on the lookout for an increased rate of “infrastructure development” in Solomon ports. Telltale signs of upgrades for military use include dredging for deeper port facilities, which will allow access for the docking of military ships, construction of onshore supporting facilities, and construction of secure accessways.
In 2016 Australia launched the “Pacific Step Up” initiative to foster security relationships, support economic growth, and strengthen climate change resilience in the South Pacific. Canberra’s direct goal was to increase engagement with neighboring countries in order to lessen the likelihood of PRC military presence in the South Pacific. Beijing is going full tilt against Australia’s strategy and if the Quad was wise, it would come together to make engagement with countries like Solomon Islands a priority.