Australian soldiers deployed to the Solomon Islands last year to restore calm after riots [Source: AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE via BBC]
Late last week, a proposed security treaty between China and a tiny chain of islands in the Pacific sent shock waves across the ocean.
The leaked draft signalled that China could deploy troops to the Solomon Islands – and potentially establish a naval base there.
Nowhere was more alarmed than the Solomons’ neighbour to the south, Australia – the bedrock regional partner of the Aukus alliance, a new security pact in the Pacific Ocean with the US and UK.
“The details of this deal are still uncertain. But even if it’s smaller than the feared military base, it would be China’s first foothold in the Pacific,” says Prof Alan Gyngell from the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
The Solomon Islands and Australia have long been interlinked. Since World War Two, Australia has been the islands’ largest aid donor, development partner and until now the sole security partner.
Australia’s government was rocked and likely blindsided by the move, analysts say. Not that it hadn’t been warned. Five years ago, Canberra sensed that China was encroaching on its “backyard” with Solomon internal politics at the time also driving up Chinese loans and economic investment.
That prompted Canberra to push back with a “step-up” policy – where it refocused attention on its “Pacific family” and ramped up its own aid flows.
But China’s elevation to security partner status alongside Australia, clearly exposes how Canberra’s engagement policy has failed, analysts say.
“The objective had to be to stop something like this happening. You can’t read it any other way – this is a failure of Australian diplomacy,” says Prof Gyngell.
It’s not just a big deal for Australia. The Aukus pact, announced only six months ago, is aimed at countering China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. The US and other Western allies have all expressed concern about it becoming another potential theatre of conflict.