Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently delivered a speech about the rules-based international order built “upon the principles and values that guide our own nation [and which] has for decades supported peace and stability, and allowed sovereign nations to pursue their interests free from coercion”.
Less than three weeks later he warned the Solomon Islands not to take this idea of sovereignty too far.
The Solomon Islands is moving towards establishing a broad security agreement with China. But its government was immediately given a lesson in how the “rules-based order” works.
New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta said the Solomon Islands' action might “destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned the Pacific region’s security”.
Morrison urged Honiara to remember Australia’s “work” in the Pacific. Defence minister Peter Dutton was, unsurprisingly, less subtle: “We don’t want unsettling influences … and we don’t want pressure and exertion that we’re seeing from China roll out in the region.”
We are frequently reminded that we are all part of the “Pacific family of nations”. It is a piece of hollow symbolism designed to mask unequal power relationships.
Australian governments throw terms like “coercion” and “bullying” about and proudly state they will stand up to bullies, while coercing and threatening smaller regional neighbours who might seek to adopt an independent foreign and domestic policy.
Solomon Islands’ arrangements with China should be a matter for the two parties.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and his Cabinet said on March 25 that Honiara is seeking to “expand the country’s security arrangements with more countries … broadening partnerships is needed to improve the quality of lives of our people and address soft and hard security threats facing the country".
A leaked security document said Honiara had set out a framework that could allow Beijing to deploy forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”. It could also “request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces”. It said Honiara wants to ensure that any strategic partnership with China would include a “development dimension”. It also welcomed police training and equipment offered by its “two major partners China and Australia”.
This does not threaten Australia and nor should the wording of the draft agreement that said “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands”.
But for Michael Shoebridge, of the hawkish Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), this allows Beijing the right to place military forces in the Solomon Islands, thereby endangering Australia’s peace and security.
Australian governments never tire of telling us they are acting in our best interests. But the pursuit of national interests does not extend to smaller, less powerful, “family” members.
Canberra’s attitude to the Solomon Islands, or any other Pacific nation, follows an established pattern — a microcosm of United States imperialist policy — thatcentres on buying patronage, securing subservient allies, threatening recalcitrant states, demanding access to markets, meddling in internal politics, including changing governments, and sending in troops.
There are clear echoes of Australia’s approach in the region. Either with allies, including corporations, or alone, it has meddled in neighbours’ affairs including using aid as a weapon, exploiting Pacific Island workers and, importantly, refusing to acknowledge the climate crisis that is already an existential threat.
The Solomon Islands’ move is the result of Australia’s long-term paternalism and belligerence, including to appeals for real action on climate change by Pacific Island nations in the lead-up to last year’s Glasgow climate conference.
Canberra’s bullying was on display at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in 2019 where Australia was asked to take meaningful steps to limit its dependency on coal. Canberra ignored its Pacific family, and played a dirty role in obstructing agreement on the final communiqué calling for urgent action to stop dangerous climate change.
Phil Glendenning, who was there for the Edmund Rice Centre, told Green Left at the time: “When someone’s house is burning, you’re not being a good neighbour by tipping more petrol on the flames.” “It doesn’t matter if you have a hose handy while you’re pouring the petrol,” he added, a reference to Australia’s feigned concern.
Greenpeace researcher Alex Edney-Browne described in Australia: Pacific Bully and International Outcast how Australia is “using diplomatic strong-arm tactics to water down outcomes in Pacific climate negotiations and buy silence on climate change”. He said Canberra had lost its “once-respected position in the Pacific and now has a reputation for bullying”.
For a small state such as the Solomon Islands to stand against a stronger one not only requires a strong commitment, it also needs a strong ally.
China’s approach is no more altruistic, or benign, than that of Australia; it is also seeking to develop relationships that promote its interests. These are, however, exclusively defined as economic interests.
The Solomon Islands is learning that the “father figure” in this increasingly dysfunctional Pacific “family” does not like to see its children become independent adults.
The militarisation of the region was first instigated by the US, and now increasingly Australia. Warmongers such as Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, railed against the move, saying that it has “been an unspoken objective of Australian defence and foreign policy for 70 years to ensure that no other power could project force against Australia from the South Pacific”.
Over those 70 years, Australia, France, Britain and the US have all treated the region as their own backyard. Nuclear testing and the dislocation of people across the Pacific stretched from the late 1940s until the final tests on Mururoa Atoll in 1996.
Morrison is just like one of those autocratic regimes he likes to denounce. Autocrats, he said, seek “to challenge the status quo through threats … We need to understand that autocrats don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us. Their mindset is very different".