Australia’s thin red line on China in the Solomons
5 May 2022|

The timing of China’s announcement that it had sealed its controversial security agreement with Solomon Islands is significant, but not for the reason claimed by Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. Beijing was more concerned that America could upset its diplomatic coup in the Solomons than it was about influencing the result of Australia’s upcoming election.

Hence the need to pre-empt the possibility that a high-level American delegation including Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator for the US National Security Council, would arrive in time to attempt to prevent completion of the agreement.

Although the Campbell mission was unsuccessful in stopping or reversing finalisation of the agreement, America’s shared concern over its implications for Indo-Pacific security has contributed to adding a dark shade of khaki to the Australian election campaign.

Both the government and the opposition agree that the Sino-Solomons security agreement has seriously altered Australia’s security environment in a way that is resonating with voters.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong has led the opposition’s charge in laying the blame on the government. Labelling the pact ‘the worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II’, she has made the security agreement a central plank in Labor’s campaign.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resorted to some electoral chest-thumping to push back. Drawing a ‘red line’ in the sands of Guadalcanal, Morrison has asserted that he will take action if China attempts to build a naval base in the Solomons.

Unfortunately for campaign messaging, his threat appears to be more muscular than the US is prepared to back publicly. Asked about American support, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said only that the US would ‘respond accordingly’.

Australia and the US have softened the prospect of imposing some unspecified sanction any time soon. Without visible cynicism, both countries have publicly accepted Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s assurances that he would not allow such a base under the security agreement he signed with Beijing.

Drawing a red line in the midst of a national campaign may have been intended to deliver an electorally popular shirtfront to China, but its practical implementation raises many questions.

First and foremost, if any action is to be taken, would it be against China as the author of the agreement or the Solomons as the host of the base?

Although the precise terms of the agreement’s final form have not been made public, former prime minister and Sogavare confidant Danny Philip has confirmed that it is very close to the draft leaked a few weeks earlier.

The draft provided the precursor conditions for a base with references to ship visits and stopovers, military personnel and armed forces to justify concerns of legitimate pre-positioning of Chinese military stores in the Solomons.

At what stage in a gradual evolution towards a base would the Morrison red line be crossed? For example, would a temporary secure precinct, perhaps staffed by Chinese police or military forces to protect resupply stores, be enough?

There are other possible red lines that might Morrison or a successor government might want to draw that would have little to do with building a base.

Ethnic tensions and social disharmony are still visibly raw in the Solomons. The security agreement has accentuated some of those tensions. Would a request for Chinese armed police to protect a government refusing to go to an election be sufficient to provoke a significant intervention? Again, the question would be asked, against which side?

This could create a Grenada-style scenario where Australian peacekeepers in the Solomons under the 2017 security treaty might be challenged by Chinese peacekeepers invited under the Sino-Solomons security agreement to support different sides in escalating social disorder.

Sogavare’s desire to postpone the general election due in 2023 is already providing tinder for possible political conflict. Any attempt to do this without due process would be a democratic red line for any Australian government.

However, this is precisely why some, such as Solomon Islander Joseph Foukona, believe Sogavare wanted Chinese protection that would be more responsive to him.

The next Solomons election will be fraught regardless of when it occurs. The main opposition party has expressed an intention to renounce the security pact and even switch diplomatic recognition back to Taipei. Such a significant policy change is unlikely to go smoothly if the opposition wins the next election.

When Anote Tong won the Kiribati presidency in 2003, he switched diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei. He claimed that several Chinese diplomats remained in the country for months after their mission closed working with the opposition to reverse his decision.

Arguably, drawing red lines is especially problematic during an election campaign, when the cold war hyperbole around the Sino-Solomons security agreement encourages insensitive language and over-egged promises to mobilise Australian voters.

The talk of a red line may be intended largely as fodder for domestic electoral consumption to show strength, but it has had international repercussions, some of which are likely to leave lasting scars.

An angry Sogavare has used strong language to attack Australia over its AUKUS agreement and defended the extraordinary extraterritoriality in the Sino-Solomons agreement by claiming that Australia had refused to protect Chinese infrastructure during the November 2021 riots, something the Australian government denies.

Lending credence to the possibility that China wanted the Solomons agreement to draw Australia away from the South China Sea area, the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times labelled Morrison’s red line ‘ironic’ in light of what it claims is Australia’s willingness to stir up trouble for China in the Indo-Pacific, especially with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea.