Bases and opportunity: The real threat in the Solomon Islands
Somewhere in my house, buried in a box of junk, is a phone to repair. This particular phone is the one I used when I lived in Chuuk. It houses most of my photos from that time, including the groundbreaking of the Chuuk State government office complex.
Five years ago, China started construction on a new office complex, nestled between the existing state office building and the Chuuk State Courthouse. As those of you who have been to Chuuk can attest, the predominant building material in the state is termite dust, so any new construction is cause for excitement.
Following a rumor that something was afoot, on a sunny Friday afternoon I made my way to the building site, which, completely vacant a few days before, now housed construction materials and equipment behind a fence adorned with Chinese characters. My reading ability in Chinese is, unfortunately, not good, but there was a banner in broken English proclaiming cooperation and friendship, or something to that effect.
Following a friendly but awkward conversation with a Chinese diplomat—the awkwardness was on my end, I assure you—he handed me a bottle of water and invited me to stay for the ceremony and flag raising that were about to begin.
As the flags of Chuuk State and China ascended the flagpole, Chuuk’s flag got caught in the railing. The honor guard disconnected it, and China’s flag completed the ceremony alone, flying solo in the late afternoon breeze.
And the flag of China proudly flies over another Pacific jurisdiction, I quipped to myself.
Over the past two decades, China has successfully built new friendships, or at least alliances for specific purposes. The Belt and Road Initiative, port building and infrastructure development have all been in the works, sometimes with good results for China’s partners, other times with that nation losing control of whatever vital asset China has built, what many term “debt-trap diplomacy.”
Shifting alliances are not new.
It has been several months now since the Solomon Islands, the archipelago roughly 1,000 miles from Australia, fired the latest salvo of the as-of-yet diplomatic war between the Chinese and American camps in the Pacific when its government entered into a vague security agreement with Beijing, which the U.S. and Australia are concerned could lead to China establishing military bases, thereby threatening maritime traffic and Australian security.
A foreign power building bases in the Solomons and presenting an existential threat to Australia is not exactly unprecedented. Australia’s apparent ignorance of its own history and geography, aside from snubbing the memories of the over 7,000 allied soldiers who died in the Solomon Islands campaign in the early days of World War II, constitutes gross foreign policy negligence.
The United States, for its part, continues to ramp up diplomacy to convince the Pacific it is not being ignored. While speeding up plans to reopen an embassy in Honiara—which should have been done decades ago— the U.S. has warned of unspecified consequences resulting from the Solomons-China security agreement.
Because in a “rules-based Indo-Pacific order,” sovereign nations entering into agreements with other sovereign nations violates the rules.
After over 70 years of lackluster development, I don’t blame anyone for wanting a change.
Ian Neubauer, writing for Al Jazeera on April 22, reported, “Fix poverty first to counter China, Solomon Islanders tell West.” In an article published by The Guardian, Professor Meg Keen writes, “The China-Solomon Islands security deal has been signed – time to move on from megaphone diplomacy.”
Collectively, these pieces address the on-the-ground reality of life in the Solomon Islands: the underdevelopment, climate challenges and general lack of opportunity.
One cannot live in Micronesia, for instance, without hearing of the triumvirate of the diaspora: education, employment and healthcare.
Failure to address poverty has created precisely the gap that China seeks to fill with its soft-sell diplomacy.
While economic development is never easy, much of the blame lies with the indifference between foreign donors and local officials to improve the lives of their citizens. They both share the blame of underdevelopment; too many foreign donors throughout the world have turned an unconcerned eye toward what national leaders do with their donated largesse.
In the case of Micronesia, I have argued before that a downside of the open migration provision is that it has provided an escape valve that has relieved its people of taking their own countries seriously. Until it means access to the national treasury.
Why, after all, is “off island” a concept among elected officials charged with governing their country? I am not arguing that travel is never necessary, but I am suggesting that when, for example, too many judges attending judicial development conferences too frequently means that a court cannot hear cases, perhaps the development objective has missed the target.
All is not lost, of course. Numerous international surveys have found that most developing nations prefer to partner with the United States.
While China’s influence is enticing, the downsides in many regions have been thoroughly documented. Loss of sovereign control over ports, for instance, and flat-out encouragement of abuse.
Island partners could actually take the human condition seriously and mend their foreign policy negligence through ensuring that their financial assistance actually goes toward what it is supposed to. Drivable roads and safe drinking water can win a lot of hearts and minds.
Until that happens, I suspect we’ll be seeing more Chinese flags.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to email@example.com.