China-Solomon Islands pact: Reading between the lines
New security deal highlights Beijing’s drive to strengthen its grasp on political favour and regional resources
What we know so far about the content of the China-Solomon Islands security pact, announced in April, points to Beijing’s preoccupation with the internal protection of its “interests” in the Solomon Islands. This begs closer scrutiny, particularly following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s whirlwind tour of the Pacific islands at the end of May and his tenacious drive to secure a region-wide multilateral economic, free trade and security pact – termed the Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development – with 10 Pacific island nations.
While China was unsuccessful in gaining the endorsement of Pacific island leaders, the unconcealed ambition and urgency of its mission correlate with domestic anxieties about an economic slowdown and rising unemployment in the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.
Covid-19 lockdowns this year, an aging population and diminished productivity in recent years have also contributed to a slide in China’s GDP growth from 8.1 percent in 2021 to a projected 5 percent this year. The Lowy Institute further predicts a potential long-term decline in China’s growth to 3 percent per year by 2030. Meanwhile, China’s current national unemployment rate is reported to be 6.1 percent, up from 5.2 percent in 2019, and youth unemployment is more than double that at 18.2 percent.
Since the 1980s, the natural resources of Pacific island countries, especially Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have contributed to productivity and growth in China.
The state of economic affairs prompted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to call an urgent meeting of party officials across the country last month to accelerate action towards returning the economy to higher growth. “We must seize the time window and strive to bring the economy back to the normal track,” Keqiang was reported to have said.
Since the 1980s, the natural resources of Pacific island countries, especially Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have contributed to productivity and growth in China. For the Solomon Islands, logging has been the overwhelming focus of its economic and trade relationship with China, which is the destination for more than 90 percent of its timber exports.
This level of export and trade doesn’t anger Solomon Islanders per se. But what has created suspicion and resentment over many years is the documented reports of collusion between local politicians, government officials and foreign logging companies in practices such as discretionary export tax exemptions and the deliberate under-valuation of timber exports. And, in particular, the eliciting of local political favor with financial largesse by foreign investors.
Corruption in the forestry sector has contributed to massive government revenue loss in the Solomon Islands over a long period, which has, in turn, undermined human, economic and equitable development throughout the country.
Grievances were voiced in November 2021, when locals from Malaita Province traveled to Honiara to protest the government’s change in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China, which occurred in 2019. Looting and arson were targeted at Chinese businesses, as occurred during previous unrest in the Solomon Islands capital in April 2006.
Then, local anger reached the boiling point following rumors of foreign interference in the national election held in the same month. One study of the causes of the riots concluded that corruption, primarily in government, as well as high levels of unemployment, were leading triggers of the protests.
Issues of inequitable development between the capital in Guadalcanal Province and the islands of Malaita have long been a source of internal political friction.
But issues of inequality also resonate with a broad section of Honiara’s population of more than 92,000. Hardship is significant for at least 35 percent of residents who live in informal settlements with poor access to basic services, such as decent housing, clean water and sanitation.
Last year’s riots are a loud signal that local resentment toward the government's perceived prioritizing of Chinese interests over those of local citizens could intensify if the provisions of the security contract are enacted.
The China-Solomon Islands security agreement allows the Melanesian country to request police and military assistance from China to maintain social order. Solomon Islands politician Danny Philip told the Australian media that the arrangement was not chiefly to protect Chinese investments. “It is both for our own security as a country internally but also for the interests of Chinese investments and infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Yi has put an emphasis on promoting “social stability” in the Pacific nation. Contributing resources to tackle local opposition, in the interests of social stability, would also aid in preventing potential disruption to China’s political, economic and trade relationship with the Solomon Islands.
A group of senior politicians in the Solomon Islands declared in 2019 that “we believe the long-term interests of our country, in terms of development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity and mutual respect, lie with Taiwan, not the People’s Republic of China.”
There is the potential for civil unrest to escalate if, for instance, such foreign law enforcement or military forces are deployed against Solomon Islanders to quell local dissent.
An important additional factor today is that increased socio-economic fragility in the Pacific islands due to the pandemic could lower the threshold of locals for tolerating perceived threats to their wellbeing and the critical development needs of the population.
(Republished with permission from The Intepreter/Lowy Institute)