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How a Chinese naval base in the Solomons is bad news for Australia

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Australia has done a poor job in this area for years – now China has swooped in and the consequences could be disastrous.

Last week the news broke that a security deal is being negotiated between the Solomon Islands north of Australia and China.

This development has caused great alarm among Australian and New Zealand strategic thinkers. Why so when the Solomons are 2000 kilometres from QLD?

The reasons are threefold.

First and foremost, China currently has no naval presence in the South Pacific. It is a virtual democratic millpond, guaranteed by the legacy power of the United States, which endorses security, trade and freedom for those under its umbrella.

Yet it is important to recognise that although it is liberal in nature, this arrangement is still part of Pax Americana and is an empire. We’re simply fortunate that the values that the American empire seeks to promote are, on the whole, benevolent (with some obvious and sometimes ruthless mistakes).

If China were to substitute the US in that architecture, the consequences will be profound.

The subordinate states of any empire take on the characteristics of the dominant.

If that were China then we can expect a series of Pacific Islands to evolve into mini-CCP states with bribed elites, hollowed-out democratic processes and persecution of those disagreeable with the regime.

This would include Australia and New Zealand both of whom have already had close brushes with the CCP’s methods of corrupting the political economy in recent years.

Second, the primary mechanism for enforcing this transformation would be a naval presence that operates as a constant threat to the entire South Pacific region. This is known as “gunboat diplomacy”, an imperial practice well understood by Western powers of the 19th century.

British naval historian, James Cable, has described it thus: “The use or threat of limited naval force, otherwise than as an act of war, in order to secure advantage or to avert loss, either in the furtherance of an international dispute or else against foreign nationals within the territory or the jurisdiction of their own state.”

It has four dimensions:

Definitive Force: the use of gunboat diplomacy to create or remove a fait accompli.

Purposeful Force: application of naval force to change the policy or character of the target government or group.

Catalytic Force: a mechanism designed to buy a breathing space or present policymakers with an increased range of options.

Expressive Force: use of navies to send a political message.

A Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands is all of these things wrapped up in one. It will likely be used to bully and intimidate all Pacific democracies that resist it, most especially Australia and New Zealand.

There is no parliamentary process worth its salt when a Chinese aircraft carrier can park itself off Australia and dictate terms without firing a shot.

This will especially be the case on any issue pertaining to China. We know what the Chinese Communist Party is after because it listed its 14 grievances with Australia in 2020.

14 demands

That would be the end of free media, political expression, open markets, and the social contract as we know it.

China has already tried to impose this via a trade war that failed. Now it is planning an unfettered Chinese navy operating out of the Solomon Islands to force it at the end of a canon.

The third reason why the Solomons proposal is so alarming is that it renders moot Australia’s military plans to keep the CCP at bay after its recent years of greater aggression.

The centrepiece of that strategy is to acquire a nuclear submarine capability that can operate at long ranges, such as in the South China Sea.

But if we are tied up defending the eastern coastline instead, long-range nuclear submarines are useless. We’ll have been outflanked overnight and be scrambling for greater continental defence.

In short, Pacific democracies have nothing to gain and everything to lose from a Chinese naval presence in the region.

Australia in particular faces something akin to the United States during the Cuban missile crisis.

What to do

Australia has done a poor job of delivering on Pacific Island needs for many years. We have gotten lost in aid instead of development, ignored climate change and only taken notice when a conflict arises rather than taking mutual Pacific security seriously.

That has opened a path for Chinese influence in the region.

Those mistakes must be reversed quickly through a concerted multilateral push to increase investment and education, plus deeper people-to-people exchanges beyond farm labour.

As well, mutual security of the Pacific Islands must become a structured priority with new agreements and diplomatic structures that include the United States.

If these carrots do not work then harder power pressure must be brought to bear upon the Solomons.

The point is, we need to act creatively, urgently and decisively.

David Llewellyn-Smith is Chief Strategist at the MB Fund and MB Super. David is the founding publisher and editor of MacroBusiness and was the founding publisher and global economy editor of The Diplomat, the Asia Pacific’s leading geopolitics and economics portal. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.

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