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  • An Australian Pacific tale: Climate security, sovereignty and neglect

An Australian Pacific tale: Climate security, sovereignty and neglect



On May 3, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, vented his fury in parliament at ‘the continual demonstration of lack of trust by the concerned parties, and tacit warning of military intervention in Solomon Islands if their national interest is undermined in Solomon Islands.’

The targets of the speech — Australia and the United States — were clear enough. ‘[W]e are being treated as kindergarten students walking around with Colt .45s in our hands, and therefore need to be supervised.’

Both countries have expressed concerns at the potential establishment of a Chinese military base in the country. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called this a ‘red line’, while US National Security Council official Kurt Campbell has promised that Washington would ‘respond accordingly’.

Resentment runs deep in Honiara. The Solomon Islands has been treated, at stages, as a failed state, a security risk, and a charity case. The Australian-led Regional Assistance to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was not enough to prevent a wandering eye towards Beijing.

In February, Chinese police officers were sent to the Solomon Islands as part of the People’s Republic of China Public Security Bureau’s Solomon  Islands Policing Advisory Group. Their mission seemed to encroach on matters otherwise within the purview of RAMSI: improving the ‘anti-riot capabilities’ of local police forces.

The February deployment was the precursor to the Sino-Solomon Islands security pact, which had already been released in draft form. The agreement permits China, on Honiara’s request, to ‘send police, police military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces’ for reasons of maintaining social order, protecting lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or ‘providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the Parties’.


'Pacific Island states have been recipients of such unwanted, denigrating wisdom for years. After the Pacific Islands summit of August 2019, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was appalled by Morrison’s ‘very insulting, very condescending’ behaviour towards Pacific Island states.'


Of particular concern to Australian and US officials is the allowance, with the consent of Honiara, for Beijing to ‘make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands’. Chinese personnel may also be used in protecting Chinese personnel and projects on the islands.

Announcement of its formalisation caused jitters in Canberra. Rather than mulling over the reasons behind the agreement, the Australian attitude has been one of insensitive harassment and mild panic. Despite taking place during an election campaign, Senator Zed Seselja, Minister for International Development, was sent to convince Honiara not to ink the security agreement.

In discussions with Sogavare, Seselja suggested that ‘the Pacific family will always meet the security needs of our region.’ Paternalistically and in most familial fashion, he ‘respectfully’ asked the Solomon Islands to reject the pact and ‘consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks.’

This reiterated what had taken place during a visit earlier in April to Honiara by Paul Symon, chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and Andrew Shearer, Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence. ‘Australia’s core security concerns’, according to a note from Sogavare’s office, were discussed, notably regarding a potential Chinese military presence in the country.  The unconvinced officials were told that Honiara’s ‘security concerns are domestically focused and complements [the] current bilateral Agreement with Australia and the regional security architecture.’

In the pundit-sphere, there were more violent suggestions. David Llewellyn-Smith resorted to hyperbole in calling this ‘Australia’s Cuban missile crisis’ requiring a military solution and the replacement of the Sogavare government. A Chinese naval base in the Solomons would see ‘the effective end of our sovereignty and democracy’. 

The Labor opposition, in their own way, have also seemingly taken issue with Honiara’s sovereignty. No deviation towards Beijing would have taken place, argue the likes of Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, had the Morrison government been more sensitive to climate change as the ‘number one economic and national issue’ to countries in the region.


'China stands to profit from geopolitical fractiousness, while collaborative and united approaches to dealing with climate security will suffer. Dutton’s remarks about time not mattering as water laps at the door could not be more gravely mistaken.'


Leaving aside the electoral mileage Labor hopes to get out of what Wong hyperbolically terms the ‘worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War Two,’ the point on climate change is hard to rebut. Indifference, even condescension, to the existential nature of climate challenges to Pacific Island states has been something of a feature of Australian attitudes.

In September 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in conversation with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and Social Services Scott Morrison, recalled the casual approach to punctuality taken at a Pacific Islands Forum meeting the previous day in Papua New Guinea. Dutton duly responded. ‘Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.’

Pacific Island states have been recipients of such unwanted, denigrating wisdom for years. After the Pacific Islands summit of August 2019, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was appalled by Morrison’s ‘very insulting, very condescending’ behaviour towards Pacific Island states. China, in stark contrast, ‘never insults the Pacific.’ They did not ‘go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific Islands.’ 

Morrison’s conduct seemed to pale before the dismissive remarks by then Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack. Climate change threats to the region, and a watery grave, were not troubling, ‘because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit, pick our own fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour’. Again, themes of charity, salvation and dismissiveness, manifest. 

In 2020, the continued refusal by the Morrison government to commit to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 was held out as a point of deep concern for Pacific Island states. In an open letter to the Prime Minister penned by fourteen Pacific leaders made up of former presidents, prime ministers, archbishops and church leaders, the authors noted Australia’s ‘current Paris Agreement emission reduction target’ as ‘one of the weakest among wealthy nations.’ 

The apoplectic excitement shown in Canberra and Washington to the Honiara-Beijing agreement, at the expense of other regional priorities, has led to the Pacific Elders’ Voice to reiterate ‘that the primary security threat to the Pacific is climate change.’    

For the elders, such major powers as the US, Japan and Australia ‘are developing strategies and policies for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with little, if any, consultation with the Pacific Island countries.’ Known as the Moana, states in the Pacific region faced ‘a set of unique challenges.’ Those countries, not meddlesome external powers, should be left to decide their course.  Accordingly, the group called upon powers ‘to respect the sovereignty of all Pacific Island countries and the right of Pacific peoples to develop and implement their own security strategies without undue coercion from outsiders.’

This sensible sentiment has been all but ignored during the course of the 2022 Australian federal election campaign, by the Morrison government and, it should also be said, the Biden Administration. In doing so, China stands to profit from geopolitical fractiousness, while collaborative and united approaches to dealing with climate security will suffer. Dutton’s remarks about time not mattering as water laps at the door could not be more gravely mistaken.





Dr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. (Getty Images News) 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Solomon Islands, Sovereignty, China



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Existing comments

No doubt Australia could have done better in the Pacific, but this article sounds like a blame-the-West excuse for aggressive communist expansion.

Communist tyrants have their own rules. China has long relied on debt-trap economics, and “Elite capture”—tempting another country’s elite with money and favours.
Putin’s recent expansion in Africa was done using irregular methods, “mercenaries, arms-for-resources deals, opaque contracts, election interference, and disinformation.” (Dr Joesph Siegle)
Trillions of dollars in Western aid can’t buy hearts and minds, but tyrant tactics often pay off. Half of all Africa’s nations refused to vote against Russia at the UN over Ukraine.
The West may have helped Eritrea secede from the Ethiopian empire after a 30-year-war with communist forces led by Soviet advisers, but Eritrea backed Russia at the UN.
But if African leaders love Putin, they also gave Idi Amin a standing ovation after he expelled Uganda’s Asians in 1971, and they admired the Marxist-Leninist Robert Mugabe who consolidated his power with the help of the notorious 5th Brigade, trained by North Korea, and armed by Beijing, who murdered his Shona opponents. China duly earned “Favoured Nation Status.”
But shonky leaders don’t necessarily represent their people’s best interests.

Ross Howard | 10 May 2022  

Hmmm, maybe they're not kids with Colt .45's but Penny Wong's logic makes them seem like blindfolded stick-weilding kids trying to hit a couple of pinjatas; it doesn't matter where the lollies come from, both will deliver. If the Solomon's response is based (predominately) on climate change (as Wong suggests) I can understand that Australia's policy would be a consideration but how could China with its climate record and outlook be an alternative choice of reason in that same notion? You don't need to be too clever to see the political leverage to cause anxiety for Australia by the Solomons partnering with our regional nemesis; the good old ATP (Australian Tax Payer) obligingly foots the bill for a sovereign nation's internet service purely to exclude China in security concerns... while our own NBN service languishes. It concerns me that Labour party influence can only proffer a diplomatic distraction with a "go to" of climate change to excuse themselves and the Solomons in the matter of security.

ray | 11 May 2022  

For 30 years Russia has been warning that NATO missiles in Ukraine on its border would constitute a dangerous red line that would prompt it to protect itself. The US did not consider this a legitimate grievance and went ahead with plans to incorporate Ukraine into NATO, with the anti-Russian missiles to follow.

Now the US claims a Chinese naval base (not missiles) in the Solomons (12,000 kms from the US) would constitute a red line for the US. Lapdog Morrison has chimed in and called it a red line for Australia (2,000 kms away).

Typical Western hypocrisy - do as I say, not as I do.

Peter Schulz | 12 May 2022  
Show Responses

The West is inherently functional and peaceful. 'China' and 'Russia' are dysfunctional because cliques monopolise political power by force of arms. If you invade a western nation, you are invading a people. If you invade a 'China' or 'Russia', you are merely taking a usurper's illegitimate possessions from him for re-distribution to its rightful owners.

Do we complain these days that Japan was invaded in WW2?

There is no moral equivalence between even a Trump administration and a Xi or Putin administration. The former was duly elected; the latter are, morally speaking, malevolent dwarves in king's robes.

roy chen yee | 13 May 2022  

It seems to me as if there are two tectonic plates colliding here. One is what is happening on the ground in the Solomons and other Pacific islands and which we in the West are traditionally not good at grasping and the other is the current international interest and intervention in the region. There are reasons bankrupt or impoverished nations worldwide have looked to China and often signed up to their Belt and Road initiative and allowed that country to establish or occupy military bases or ports. I think we need to be careful to not, in these circumstances, emulate Chicken Little and claim the sky is falling in: it is not. I think Labor's attitude and policy towards this situation is far wiser and more nuanced than that of the current government's. We need to be very careful not to fall for the same sort of mistake as we did with Iraq and its supposed 'weapons of mass destruction', which were nonexistent. The results of that War are still with us.

Edward Fido | 13 May 2022  

Its time we withdrew from helping them at all. The 2 bn Australia has spent has not been appreciated. Manasseh Sogavare has no appreciation for the past and its a long time since Henderson field was in US control. He has declared Australia to be an enemy. He is on Xi's payroll. Australia should (with US participation) build a dozen new military bases around its shores, seriously weapon up and get ready for war with China. As for Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama (also on Xi's payroll), what has changed with him since he seized power by way of a coup in 2006? He was a thug then and nothing has changed since.

Francis Armstrong | 13 May 2022  

Some elderly Cold Warriors here, beating a rather rusty old tin-drum, seem to forget that the Belt and Road initiative has been embraced by notionally pro-Western countries like Serbia and her neighbours. Independent countries are entitled to borrow capital from whoever they please!

The most obvious reason for this is that China's terms of trade and capital extension are far more reasonable than those from any Western source. As a major economic power what is so bothersome about China seeking to secure her future by investing her excess capital on reasonable terms of return in countries starved of it, especially when there is no guarantee that Western influence, especially in Latin America, has lead to the spread of democracy?

Instead, capital extension in those regions has been followed by military coups galore, including the assassination of democratically-elected leaders like Chilean President Allende.

The application of seriously outdated post-War colonial theory to deal with the just aspirations of the developing world to manage their own affairs was on show yesterday when our first High Commissioner to the Solomons, Trevor Sofield, was manhandled by Morrison's minders in the electorate of Bass, where Sofield, now a Professor at UTAS, is a constituent.


Michael Furtado | 13 May 2022  

'The West is inherently functional and peaceful.'? Tell that one to the marines, Roy. One only needs to look at the history of Western imperialism and belligerence over the last two centuries to see the falsity in that idea. If you are not convinced, try reading a bit of "Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire" by Caroline Elkins.

Ginger Meggs | 02 June 2022  

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