Solomons plus Beijing-Timor ties signals critical moment in our region’s security
Richard Marles with Manesseh Sogavare

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP, met with Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare during a visit to the Solomon Islands.

Written by

Peter Jennings

There was a touch of Fidel Castro in Manasseh Sogavare’s speech at the UN last week.

In a collarless Mao suit the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare delivered an ardent tirade against the “toxic mix of geopolitical power politics” afflicting the Pacific.

Barring one mention with a half-dozen other countries supporting the forthcoming Pacific Games, Australia (the Solomons’ largest aid donor and ultimate security guarantor) was ignored.

China was lavishly praised for delivering a model of “South-South co-operation” that was “less restrictive, more responsive and aligned to our national needs”.

Japan was hammered for plans to release water from the Fukushima reactor into the Pacific.

Cuba was thanked for providing medical training and the US urged to end the “unjust embargo” on Havana. Bizarrely, the US was condemned for fighting the Battle of Guadalcanal, “a war not of our making” – that’s the fight along with the Battle of the Coral Sea that saved Australia and the Solomons in World War II. Sogavare then refused to attend a Pacific summit with US President Joe Biden. That takes some chutzpah. The US reopened its embassy in the Solomons only last February and is lining up to be a donor.

The most worrying Sogavare line was a veiled reference to AUKUS.

“We remain concerned on the development of military nuclear investment in the Pacific region and its potential to trigger a nuclear arms race and its implications for our nuclear-free status,” he said.

That is, of course, breathtaking nonsense. Compare the Australian plan for eight nuclear-powered submarines arriving some time in the 2040s with China’s massive expansion of nuclear weapons to more than 1000 warheads, the Pentagon estimates, by the end of the 2020s.

Note also that China’s interest in the Solomons has become more intense since AUKUS was announced. A People’s Republic of China military presence in the Solomons would horribly complicate Australia’s defence planning and threaten the activities of a new east coast submarine base location.

From Beijing’s perspective Sogavare’s speech and snubbing of Biden was pitch perfect. He’s their man in Honiara. If anything, “Soga” is becoming more emboldened. This makes the outcome of the Solomon Islands election – delayed by Sogavare to April next year – of critical interest. Solomons politics is volatile and a change of government is always possible. Few in the Pacific region would be sad to see the firebrand leave office.

While Sogavare was in New York, East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was in the Chinese city of Hangzhou meeting President Xi Jinping. A “comprehensive strategic partnership” was signed to “increase mutual support and strengthen international co-operation”.

The Chinese Communist Party’s English-language newspaper, Global Times, wrote on Sunday that the Timor agreement and Solomon Islands co-operation reflect “a clear choice by regional countries to engage in mutually beneficial co-operation with China and is a model of South-South co-operation”.

East Timor’s engagement is not driven by Sogavare’s ideological zeal. Dili is focused on spreading its geopolitical bets and knows Indonesia – which dominates Timor’s economy – will be wary of moves to get closer to China.

That’s cold comfort. The reality is that East Timor forms part of the northern archipelagic arc through which any military threat to Australia will come. We have a profound interest in ensuring that our near neighbours, such as the Solomons and East Timor, do not fall into China’s strategic orbit.

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review calls for more diplomatic effort, more “statecraft”, more defence engagement with Pacific and Southeast Asian partners, more military effort in northern Australia and “making it harder for countries to be coerced against their interests”.

These are laudable aims, but on the face of it nothing has changed since the arrival of a more regionally focused Albanese government. The key policy question to ask is: how do you stop neighbours that actively want closer engagement with China? Sogavare is not being coerced by Beijing. He is doing precisely what he wants to do.

There are no easy solutions, but here I suggest four steps the Albanese government should take. Be warned: they are expensive and will not be welcomed in Beijing.

First, the government should stop being coy with the Australian people about the nature of the threat. The DSR talks about a “lack of transparency or reassurance” in China’s military build-up. In fact, China’s strategic actions couldn’t be clearer or more obvious.

We should stop pretending to be uncertain about the source of strategic risk. The answer is China. The government shirks from saying so because of its desire to put bilateral trade back on track.

Second, we should copy the NATO approach of using intelligence to expose bad behaviour. This did a lot to expose Russian malfeasance in the lead-up to the 2021 invasion of Ukraine and to strengthen European unity to help Kyiv.

We should not hesitate to publicly identify behaviours of the Sogavare government that run contrary to the interests of the Solomons’ people. More hard-nosed expressions of the national interest and fewer mawkish references to the “Pacific family” might help our neighbours to realise that Australia is serious about security.

Third, Anthony Albanese should inject some strategic substance into his planned visit to Beijing by making it clear to Xi that we will expose and vigorously resist China’s attempts to weaken Australia’s position with our neighbours If Canada’s Justin Trudeau can shirt-front Xi on China’s electoral interference in Canada, Albanese should do the same on China’s actions in the Pacific. That will make for a tough conversation, but that’s far better than just repeating empty slogans about how we will “co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and always act in the national interest”.

The Solomons is surely a case where Albanese in Beijing should “disagree where we must”. If not now, Prime Minister, when?

The toughest call for Australia is to realise that leading on security in our near region cannot be delivered with defence spending at 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Our spending on diplomacy is a fraction of that. Australia chronically underspends on national security because of decades of free riding on the US. To build our own military presence in the region and to give our neighbours confidence that we are a dependable and strong partner we need to lift defence spending to at least 3 per cent of GDP.

The dirty secret of Australia’s political bipartisanship on defence is that its just a political axis of cheapness, big talk and free riding. Beijing knows that, so does Sogavare, and so do we.

This article was first published in the Australian.