The Pitch Black is significant for Australia as it is for the region. The pacific is no more the sailor’s paradise but turning into a conflict zone where the projections are visible on the horizon. A secret security treaty between China and Solomon Islands in the Pacific sent shock waves across the ocean. Others are in the fray with Samoa signing a bilateral agreement with China for funding its major infrastructure projects, and Fiji lined up for additional funding from China. But more so, it heralds an era of open conflict based on the fact that China is already prepared to dock its warships and military jets which is the message on the wall for Australians.
The abrupt breakaway is enough warning for Australia as the two nations have long been interlinked and Australia has been the islands’ largest aid donor, development partner and until now the sole security partner. And to add on this, there are other Pacific Island countries–Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu– which have had a very close links and with Australia are breaking norms. The fear is that a Chinese military presence in the Pacific will completely disrupt the benign environment in the region. For the rationale, the case of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is often refereed to. The Chinese forced Sri Lankan authorities to allow its naval warships despite the protest from India. Important to highlight that it did not bother Chinese to instigate such conflicts in the region when Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis.
A foothold in the Australia’s “backyard“
The Solomon Islands government today hauled in Australia’s High Commissioner on the ABC’s Four Corners program aired an episode exploring how China has been rapidly building commercial and security ties with the Pacific Island nation. It is unthinkable that Solomon Islands will resort to such diplomatic row based on its overarching relations with Australia. Is it not a true reflection of what is coming? The Pacific Capture program aired on ABC simply examined the impact of Chinese state-owned companies in Solomon Islands and revealed one of those businesses was negotiating to buy a forestry plantation on the island of Kolombangara with a deep-water port and airstrip.
The move by China took Australia by surprise. Not that they were not warned about Chinese officials visiting Solomon Islands, influencing the internal politics for the purpose. The pattern of loans and infrastructure financing was also beginning to show in the Islands.
The broad statements that were leaked contained clear-cut military establishment by the Chinese government. The agreement said China could send navy ships for stopover in the islands. China will also deploy forces to protect Chinese people and Chinese projects on the islands. The Solomons could request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces. To this effect, the representative from Royal Solomon Islands police force told media on the sidelines of the Pacific regional law conference in Fiji that Solomon did not rule out Chinese police officers embedded within the force.
China has laid out very aggressive plan under its proposed “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” and “Five-Year Action Plan (2022–26)”. Tangled with its infamous Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), it aims to penetrate deeper into the region by all means possible—much that is about debt-financing and subsequent takeover.
For China, these resource rich small islands are full of geostrategic, diplomatic and economic opportunities. But these are the vital links for China to realize its larger goal of encircling the Indo-Pacific. One just needs to look at the South China Sea and how it has been turned into a conflict-zone by China. Beijing’s maritime drills in the disputed South China Sea basically represents the pattern where the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begins to control the international sea routes, unilaterally rejecting all the historic and rightful claims of the countries around. What is worrisome is that China refused to accept the international ruling in 2016 in Hague, leaving smaller nations around to fend for themselves. Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan often face the wrath of Chinese navy (PLAN) in the contested water of South China Sea(SCS).
The three of the major groups of islands in the Pacific Ocean are Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. China has already figured out critical trading outlets in the Pacific. Together, these nations have more than 199 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The story is similar.
While these small clusters islands are now receiving economic aid China, the terms and conditions are set beyond the economic intertest and such terms overstep in the internal politics, aiming to uproot Australian’s deep links and security ties. Fact that these islands suffered badly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the easy loans and financing from China come as a relief but in return, all of them have to pay the price.
Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister held a virtual meeting with a host of countries in Fiji with the aim to strike a sweeping trade and security agreement with 10 Pacific Island nations. While the proposal was shelved after a number of Pacific countries raised concerns about both the substance of the pact and China’s approach, it indicates a sense of urgency for the Australian to embrace them with a new set of engagements; certainly not as calling it a “backyard”.
Story of neglect and poverty
The other side of the story is equally compelling. To start with, Solomon Islands remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Such is the state of affairs that with critical sectors like healthcare, education remain unaddressed and with high unemployment rate, Solomon Islands has one of the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) scores in the world.
But who is responsible for its sordid affairs? Australia has been the largest donor to Solomon Islands since the 1970s, accounting for nearly half of the $22.7bn in aid spent on the region since 2009. Last year, Australia spent a record $1.3bn in development assistance in the South Pacific. So certainly, Australians are not to be blamed as per the monetary assistance goes. But certainly, the Solomons were dependent on Australia for so long.
But China’s elevation to security partner status alongside Australia, clearly exposes how Canberra’s engagement policy has failed, analysts say. The problem lies elsewhere says a senior official from Australian government. “This is about the lack of engagement — this is a failure of Australian diplomacy.”
To begin with former Prime minister of Australia Scott Morrison called for the “Pacific Step Up” to deepen defence and economic ties with the region. No doubt, Morrison took China head-on which is definitely the boldest stance within the framework of Australian foreign policies. Beyond that It also marked the beginning of an independent foreign policy hitherto linked to Western alliances in its approach and actions. So, China punished Australia harshly with economic sanctions that had some strong impact.
The Quad has taken centerstage. In fact, the Quad concept has been the flavour of Australian foreign policy since its inception and has been very active in military engagements since 2017. This is one area where Australia’s new Albanese government and the oppositions parties are in tandem under the broad theme of Indo-Pacific strategy.
Another key move that was seen as the geopolitical disruption is The Aukus pact. Clearly, it is aimed at countering China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. It also shows the Australian way of doing things ‘quick’ once the realization sets in. Under the pact, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. will develop nuclear-powered submarines. In a sweeping decision, Australia cancelled its conventional submarine program with France, realizing the strategic importance of having a nuclear submarine.
The final resolution lies in leveraging the relations that Australia has with its partners and friends. The message that Australia is not alone in fighting against the hegemonic China is about the engagements through military exercises like Malabar and Pitch Black. While Malabar is a complex naval exercise with Quad partners, Exercise Pitch Black is large force employment warfare which is scheduled to be held from 19 Aug 22 to 08 Sep 22 in Darwin. This is a biennial, multi-national exercise hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). This year’s exercise will see the participation of over 100 aircraft and 2500 military personnel from various air forces.
As RAAF’s Exercise Commander Air Commodore Tim Alsop sums up: “The return of Pitch Black marked an excellent opportunity to strengthen partnerships and promote regional stability.”