Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles landed in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, last week for talks on the future of Australia’s defence and policing presence in the country. The day before Marles arrived in Honiara he suggested that the Australian-led Solomon Islands International Assistance Force (SIAF) could remain in Solomon Islands beyond the mission’s expiration date of December this year.
This was a miscalculation. Marles signalling that Australia is interested in an enduring security presence in Solomon Islands would likely have been viewed in Honiara as pre-empting the outcome of their discussions.
Under pressure since the signing of the security agreement with China in 2022, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare responded during Marles’ visit by calling for a review of the Australia-Solomon Islands bilateral security treaty under which the SIAF is deployed. The treaty provides the legal basis for the rapid deployment of Australian police, defence and other personnel in the event of a major security challenge or humanitarian emergency and at the request of Solomon Islands. It also provides for third countries to contribute to the deployment with the consent of Solomon Islands. Under this provision New Zealand and Fiji deployed with the SIAF Sogavare has not stipulated what aspects of the bilateral security treaty with Australia he wishes to be reviewed.
The SIAF – comprising of Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji – first deployed to Solomon Islands following the riots in November 2021. Papua New Guinea provided security personnel under a separate bilateral agreement with Solomon Islands. In March the following year the SIAF deployment was extended to assist Solomon Islands with operational readiness and security planning in the lead up to the Pacific Games, which will run from 19 November to 2 December 2023. At the time the SIAF was extended, then prime minister Scott Morrison insisted it was a short-term deployment, dismissing comparisons to the 14-year Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
Geopolitical competition has intensified in Solomon Islands since it switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. This competition is most visibly playing out in the country’s security sector as Solomon Islands hedges its two competing security partners, and Australia and China in turn jostle for advantage, influence and presence.
Solomon Islands has successfully leveraged geopolitical competition to meet its security interests. Australia has long dominated the security sector in Solomon Islands. However, the Solomon Islands 2020 National Security Strategy provided early indications that it would seek partnerships with friendly foreign governments to address security gaps. In 2022 Sogavare referred to Australia as the “security partner of choice” but went on to say that for Solomon Islands to meet its security needs, the diversification of security partners was necessary.
In 2022, China announced that it was not seeking a “sphere of influence” in the Pacific but that it is a direct stakeholder in the security of the South Pacific. This was the first time China had publicly stated this and it can be seen most visibly in its security cooperation with Solomon Islands. That year Solomon Islands and China signed a succession of highly scrutinised security agreements, a policing agreement which formalised the presence of the China Police Liaison Team to Solomon Islands (CPLT) following the November 2021 riots, and the Framework Agreement on Security Cooperation which provides for Chinese military and other security personnel to be deployed in response to a crisis and at the request of Solomon Islands.
Competition in the security sector has since escalated as have concerns about the ways in which geopolitical competition is intersecting with – and exacerbating – local security dynamics. These concerns include distrust of the local police. Concern was raised first about the Chinese Embassy’s importation of 95 replica rifles and 95 replica pistols into Solomon Islands in February which bypassed port authorities, and later about Australia’s donation of 60 semi-automatic rifles (with specialist training included). Opposition leader Mathew Wale warned against the “militarisation” of Solomon Islands and accused Australia of making the donation purely to stop China building up its influence in the police force.
These concerns also include Solomon Islands’ Chinese communities who have been targeted during riots. In 2016 when I was researching private security companies in Solomon Islands as part of a Pacific Islands Forum-UNDP project on private security sector governance in the Pacific, Fijian private security personnel were highly visible patrolling Chinatown. Shop owners said it increased their sense of security as most of the private security personnel were former Fijian military. Fast forward to 2022 and a contact centre between the CPLT and the Solomon Islands Chinese Association has been established, its secretary telling the Global Times that “Now we, the Chinese here, have gained a greater sense of security.”
There are worrying points of potential friction such as the Pacific Games which begin in November. Australia and China will each retain a security “presence mission” in Solomon Islands throughout this year and potentially into 2024. Australia has voiced concerns about how effectively Australian and Chinese police forces currently on the ground would be able to cooperate, particularly with respect to unity of command. The protection of Chinese citizens and property, particularly major projects such as the Pacific Games infrastructure is a core tenet of Chinese security cooperation in the Solomon Islands.
And in that, countries should heed the concerns raised within the region about the impact of geopolitical competition on Pacific security sectors. The Pacific Islands Forum Pacific Security Outlook 2022-2023 highlighted the increased tempo of engagement by security partners. The competing and non-aligned security partners, it suggested, could overwhelm and undermine peace and security efforts.
*This article is based on research examining the geopolitical drivers of security assistance in Solomon Islands and which was first presented at the Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research and University of the South Pacific in Fiji, 3-4 April, 2023. The research is funded by the New Zealand Multi Agency Research Network and Massey University.