15 September 2019
The announcement by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands that his government was seriously considering switching diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China, has far-reaching implications for Australia and US-led regional military and security provision.
If the diplomatic shift goes ahead part of the present status quo in the South Pacific will be altered; a significant shift in the balance of forces will have taken place in favour of Beijing
Shortly after re-election in April, PM Sogavare established a task force to evaluate the continued significance of the Solomon’s 40-year diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. It was not a low-ranking collection of government advisers from the small South Pacific country; to the contrary, the task force included eight government ministers and the PM's private secretary. The nine-personal delegation was sent to Beijing in August for high-level diplomatic meetings, as evidence that the new, incoming government in Honiara was taking the matter very seriously. (1)
The Solomon Islands has, historically, formed part of a three-country bloc of Melanesian countries to the north of Australia, strategically-placed between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In recent times the small area has become highly sensitive for US imperialism’s miitary and security considerations: the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations last year included several contributions dealing with the perceived problem. The then Australian Foreign Secretary Julie Bishop stated the South Pacific was regarded as 'Australia's part of the world'. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently raised serious concerns about the area and the need for 'greater US-Australian co-ordination and engagement across the region, including the noted Pacific Islands' to deal with matters arising. (2)
Shortly after the completion of the AUSMIN meetings, a media release from Canberra announced that 'Australia's intelligence and analytical agencies believe that the South Pacific now presents the greatest strategic threat to Australia', following assessments about China in the region. (3)
Sensitivities by Canberra about the region were also later revealed in a short media release which accompanied references to the removal of PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, who had been held responsible for elevating his country’s diplomatic relations with China, which raised serious concerns with Canberra. (4) The accompanying article, concerned specifically about the Solomon Islands, drew attention to the Pacific which was regarded as 'front and centre of Australia's strategic outlook'. (5)
The Solomon Islands has also, historically, been part of a small group of countries maintaining diplomatic links with Taiwan. Its strategic position in the South Pacific, has been closely linked to five other Pacific countries to the north: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu. The geographical positions of the five northern countries across Micronesia and Polynesia, all retain enormous strategic importance for US imperialism’s regional considerations. (6)
The fact the Solomon Islands lies on the dividing and demarcation line for the US Naval 7th and 3rd fleets, has revealed its strategic significance in wider military considerations: the straight line, drawn by the Pentagon, effectively dissects the region from the Frontier for the Northern Sphere, the Arctic, to the Frontier for the Southern Sphere, Antarctica, and also cuts directly through the highly sensitive Micronesia region. (7)
In recent times the military facilities based on Guam have been developed into a hub for military operations in the wider region, coinciding with similar moves on US facilities elsewhere on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. There has been little ambiguity with the US-led military planning: both Guam and Diego Garcia rest upon the same arc from Pine Gap, a US intelligence facility in central Australia. (8)
The two hubs, likewise, have also been linked to the development of Darwin harbour as a military support centre in northern Australia, which has also included two further considerations (9): an increased number of US military personnel rotated through Darwin in preparation for deployment elsewhere in the region; the Australian Defence Department planning a new military force based in Brisbane 'to work with key regional neighbours', including those in the South Pacific. (10)
The developments involving Australia are directly linked to wider considerations.
Throughout the Trump administration, Taiwan has been central to much of the US-led moves to reassert their hegemonic position and counter China as a regional player. In fact, Washington and the Pentagon have pushed Taiwan to the forefront of regional rivalries and used the country as 'a bulwark against China's growing assertiveness in South-east Asia and the Pacific'. (11) It is, therefore, important to note that Taiwan has become an important player for US-led regional Cold War positions against China throughout the wider region.
US-led diplomacy toward Taiwan has, therefore, included three important considerations: enhancing the political status of President Tsai Ing-wen while taking diplomatic missions elsewhere, using the enhanced status for increased influence over her administration, and increased arms sales to bolster Taiwan's military capacity.
President Tsai Ing-wen has been, for example, made a welcome guest in the US and allowed to stay in the country for lengthy periods in transit-flights for elsewhere. The moves have been regarded by Beijing as a serious challenge to usual diplomatic protocol (12).
It has been accompanied by a more audible demand from some of those close to the Taiwanese president for the country to strive for full independence within the global arena, challenging the traditional position of China that Taiwan is nothing more than a renegade province in a matter, as yet, unresolved from 1949.
Increased US arms sales to Taiwan recently included a $2.2 billion consignment including tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, followed by a further sale of 66 new F-16 fighter jets valued at $11.8 billion. (13)
Recent diplomatic moves by the Solomon Islands toward China have, therefore, run counter to the position of the Trump administration and US-led regional military and security provision. To date, however, there has been no official US acknowledgement of the problem: their diplomatic silence has, nevertheless, been deafening.
Two media releases dealing with the matter from elsewhere were very carefully-worded to avoid unnecessary publicity:
• The first, issued by executive-director of the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Peter Jennings, and hidden amongst about ten short paragraphs, noted 'Australia and the US wanted Taiwan to preserve its position in the Pacific.....it suits our interests and the American interests if Taiwan has a number of Pacific Island states recognising it rather than the mainland' (14). When Mr Jennings then concluded the ASPI media release noting 'the US absolutely expects us to play the lead role in preserving the status quo in the region', there was little ambiguity about the nature of US-led diplomacy toward the region and the role which had been thrust upon Canberra (15);
• Secondly, a brief media release from Taipei dealing with the matter included reference amongst five paragraphs to President Tsai Ing-wen urging the Solomon Islands to not switch diplomatic allegiance to Beijing. (16)
In conclusion, it should be noted, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee of the Sogavare government in Honiara will be making their final report about the matter on 31 October. Whatever the outcome of their findings and recommendations the whole affair is likely to remain a central military and security consideration for Canberra as attention shifts to a small, and previously almost ignored, small country in the South Pacific heavily dependent upon foreign aid where over half the population live in poverty with no access to electricity. The stakes for the US, and their regional considerations, remain very high indeed!
We need an independent foreign policy!
1. Honiara weighs cutting Taiwan, Australian, 5 September 2019.
2. US to lift its Pacific clout to counter China, Australian, 26 July 2018.
3. Top threat now lies in the Pacific, The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.
4. Flip-flopping O'Neill clings to PNG power, Australian, 28 May 2019.
5. Solomons not prepared for pivot to China: MP, Australian, 28 May 2019.
6. The South-West Pacific and Sino-US competition, Strategic Analysis Paper, Future Directions International, 23 July 2019.
7. Fundamental Study of American power, H. Fudzii, (Tokyo, 1986), Chart 2, p.20; and, Map of the World, Peters Projection, Actual Size.
8. US intensifies military presence in the Indo-Pacific, Global Times (China), 24 July 2018.
10. More US Marines than ever head for Darwin, Australian, 23 August 2018; and, Australia sets up force for Pacific, Australian, 23 July 2019.
11. F-16 sales to Taiwan cross Beijing's red line, Australian, 26 August 2019.
12. Taiwan's leader visit to NY sparks fights, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 July 2019.
13. Australian, op.cit., 26 August 2019.
14. Australian, op.cit., 28 May 2019.
16. Taiwan urges Solomons to reject China, Australian, 10 September 2019.