(Featured)IN-DEPTH: CCP Delegation Visits Solomon Islands; Experts Cite Threat to Taiwan

Underwater domain awareness — that is, comprehending the intricate dynamics of underwater channels — holds the key

A delegation of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials recently visited the Solomon Islands, which was highlighted by Chinese state media as a sign of flourishing cooperation and “strengthened engagement” between the CCP and the Solomon Islands’ current ruling party, which is led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

The Solomon Islands, a nation of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific, some of which were pivotal battlegrounds during World War II, has been in the geopolitical limelight in recent years because of its growing diplomatic and strategic proximity to China.

The CCP’s three-day state visit, which ended on Oct. 29, was led by Guo Yezhou, the deputy head of the International Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. He met with Mr. Sogavare; Bradley Tovosia, the deputy leader and minister for mines, energy, and rural electrification of the ruling Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party; Jeremiah Manele, the minister for foreign affairs and external trade; and representatives of other political parties in the nation’s parliament.

Amid the Israeli–Hamas conflict, while experts highlight the emergence of a new age of geopolitics, they also cite extensive and increasing threats to Taiwan emanating from the Chinese regime’s presence in the Pacific—particularly the Solomon Islands—that add to U.S. strategic burdens. The CCP delegation’s visit raises fresh concerns.

The Pacific island nations are a significant theater for the United States against China, which has gained ground in the past decade, according to Akhil Ramesh, a senior fellow with the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum.

One notable example of this problem is the Khadakwasla dam, where a study conducted by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC) revealed that the dam is more than 50 per cent silted. The findings indicate the dam’s reduced storage capacity leads to water overflow during heavy rains, while during the dry season, the available water is significantly depleted, impacting water supply. Relentless downpours only intensify the problem, hastening the rate at which sediment accumulates. Without UDA, the extent of silting is difficult to gauge, making it challenging to devise effective solutions.

“As the threat over Taiwan looms, [the] Solomon Islands’ cordial ties with China—made clear by recent high-level visits—will remain Washington’s perennial challenge in the region,” Mr. Ramesh told The Epoch Times in an email.

For decades, the Solomon Islands had a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Following Mr. Sogavare’s reelection in 2019 (he had previously served three nonconsecutive terms), it ended the alliance and diplomatically recognized China.

Jon Fraenkel of the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, has described the realignment as a “game-changer,” resulting from what he noted as “lobbying” from Beijing as well as from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corp., which promised $500 million in loans and grants to Mr. Sogavare.

“Plans were soon afoot to resuscitate the mothballed Guadalcanal gold mine, to build a sports stadium for the 2023 Pacific Games, and even to temporarily take over Taiwan’s controversial slush funds for MPs,” Mr. Fraenkel wrote in an analysis published on the East Asia Forum.

A $825 million deal with Chinese companies to revive the gold mine occurred just a month after the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan. Raising even more concerns, the deal involved the construction and control of power and port facilities, roads, rails, and bridges in and around Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, a strategic Pacific location that was the scene of fierce fighting in World War II.

Ironically, the Solomon Islands doesn’t control the infrastructure—it’s instead controlled by Hong Kong-listed investment company Wanguo International Mining, which has in turn contracted the work to state-owned China State Railway Group Co., according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Ironically, the Solomon Islands doesn’t control the infrastructure—it’s instead controlled by Hong Kong-listed investment company Wanguo International Mining, which has in turn contracted the work to state-owned China State Railway Group Co., according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Epoch Times in an email that China is pushing on every door possible in the Pacific to advance its global strategic interests.

“It got an opening with Solomon’s Prime Minister Sogavare and has pushed it open as hard and fast as it can,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it is ignoring the other doors though—while we are now focused on Solomons, there are major moves being made in a range of other countries, including Vanuatu, Palau, and [the] Marshall Islands.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (L) looks on with Li Ming (2nd R), China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands, as they listen to a Chinese police officer (R) during a ceremony in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Nov. 4, 2022. (Gina Maka/AFP via Getty Images)

Sogavare Skips Washington Summit 

President Joe Biden hosted a second summit—following last year’s summit—with leaders of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum at the White House on Sept. 25. The meeting’s goal was to encourage engagement in the region, where the United States is in a battle for influence with China.

However, despite being present in the United States to address the United Nations, Mr. Sogavare skipped the Pacific Islands summit.

Speaking at a news conference after arriving home, Mr. Sogavare said that he had attended the first Pacific Islands Forum last year but “nothing came out of it.”

“They lecture you about how good they are,” Mr. Sogavare said, according to a report by Solomon Islands media outlet Tavuli News.

During the forum, the United States pledged to invest in infrastructure in the Pacific Island nations.

A Biden administration official had earlier expressed dismay at Mr. Sogavare’s absence from the summit.

“We are disappointed that PM Sogavare of the Solomons does not plan to attend,” the official told Reuters.

The snub by Mr. Sogavare is a clear sign of shifting alignments, said Arnab Das, director of the India-based Maritime Research Center.

“U.S. hegemony is on the decline and the Chinese are making every effort to onboard critical partners on a strategic level,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

Mr. Sogavare’s absence from the Sept. 25 summit came after the Solomon Islands signed nine agreements and memorandums with China during the prime minister’s visit to China in July.

The deals included a police cooperation plan. Reportedly, Chinese police will arrive in the Solomon Islands this month to help with security for the Pacific Games, scheduled for Nov. 19 to Dec. 2.

In addition, there were reports last year that a Chinese state-owned company was eyeing a forestry plantation with a port and World War II-era airstrip in the Solomon Islands.

Experts have expressed concern that the Israel–Hamas conflict, which began in early October, would strain U.S. resources and support China’s agendas. While the United States is overstretched, China will further push its footprint into various theaters, including the Solomon Islands, Mr. Das believes.

“China is behind the scenes in all the major global events. Right from Ukraine to Israel and Taiwan,” he said, noting that the Solomon Islands is pivotal for China’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

Mr. Ramesh said that while the island nation may not be a major player militarily or economically, it’s a strategic one.

“Solomon Islands is the one actor that could destabilize Washington’s efforts at encircling China if conflict over Taiwan were to break [out] tomorrow,” he said.

The strategic significance of the island chain’s location can be understood from the fact that major World War II battles, including Guadalcanal, Bloody Ridge, and Iron Bottom Sound, were fought there, Ms. Paskal said.

“If you can block others, and project power from there, you can make life very difficult for the Australians, among others,” she said.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) poses with Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape, and other leaders from the U.S.–Pacific Island summit (not pictured), at the White House on Sept. 29, 2022. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo)

Countering China

To counter Chinese strategies in the Pacific Island nations, particularly in the Solomon Islands, the United States and its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) need to work together to strengthen democratic institutions and make its policies more public-centric in the region, experts say.

The Quad, which includes the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, has been criticized for not doing enough “public good” and keeping the informal alliance “largely for strategic security interests to counter China,” Mr. Das said.

According to the maritime expert, the smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific region feel that the great power rivalry between the United States and China is occurring at their cost. He said they’re losing interest in the Quad and its relevance.

“Announcements need to be backed with more actions on the ground,” he said.

Ms. Paskal thinks that U.S. policies in the Solomon Islands can set a precedent for the rest of the region. The key, she said, is to stop—or at least slow—the “flow of dirty PRC money” into the body politic of the islands.

“That is literally corrupting the whole country, including the democratic structures. Left to spread, it will carry with it the CCP way of doing things, and once that happens, things get very dire for the people of the country, and the security of the region,” she said, noting that much of the Chinese money ends up in Australian and New Zealand banks and real estate.

Ms. Paskal suggests that New Zealand and Australia investigate the flow of Chinese money within their own countries. She believes that this is likely to provide enough information to expose and prosecute those who are, in her words, selling out “their people and country.”

Mr. Das suggested an “underwater domain awareness” (UDA) framework to generate trust among the smaller nations and to help them in the sustainable economic growth and management of climate risk.

There’s an immense interest currently in the importance of UDA in nation-building.

UDA is “knowing what is happening beneath the surface of the oceans” and knowing “exactly what is where, to drive an effective exploration of the ocean,” according to the Maritime Research Center.

UDA, according to the Observer Research Foundation, “transcends the security discourse and integrates all key stakeholders” from security to disaster management to technology, in order to ensure “safe, secure, sustainable growth for all in the region.”

Mr. Das said, “UDA framework encourages pooling of resources and synergizing efforts across the stakeholders in the region.”

 

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.

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