Canberra is facing questions about the limits of its economic diplomacy as Pacific neighbour boosts ties with Beijing.
When the Solomon Islands, an impoverished nation located 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) east of Australia, announced the drafting of a new security deal with China late last month, Australian officials warned the move could undermine security in the South Pacific and manifest Canberra’s long-held fears of a Chinese military base in its back yard.
As the region’s largest aid donor – Australia last year spent a record 1.7 billion Australian dollars ($1.3bn) in development assistance in the South Pacific, as well as billions more on security, health, logistics and telecommunications in the Solomon Islands – Canberra could have imposed economic penalties to pressure Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to rethink the deal.
Instead, Australia increased its largesse, promising a second patrol boat and outpost, 65 million Australian dollars ($49m) for a new embassy, and 22 million Australian dollars ($16.5m) for government salaries and an integrated police, health and disaster management radio network across the archipelago, which is home to about 700,000 people.
But as Australia seeks to reassert its influence, Canberra’s recent rude awakening raises difficult questions about the limits of its ability to check China’s growing influence in the Pacific by showering its neighbours with cash.
“When there was large-scale civil unrest in the capital, Honiara, last year, Australia deployed security personal within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Solomon Islands and other countries in the region followed suit,” Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat to the Solomon Islands and research fellow with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“But the new deal potentially gives extensive reach for Chinese military personnel, assets and armed police. It shows two things: there are security gaps in the Solomon Islands that Australia simply cannot fill, and that aid won’t buy Australia exclusivity even though China was able to impose exclusivity,” Sora added, referring to a 2019 decision by Honiara to terminate 36 years of foreign relations with Taiwan in favour of Beijing.
Despite Beijing’s growing foothold, Chinese aid in the region has declined since 2018, while Chinese loans that Western officials have warned could lead to unserviceable debt have increased in leaps and bounds, now totalling $1bn.
Some critics have accused Beijing of resorting to chequebook diplomacy, by which large sums of money have allegedly been funnelled to political parties and actors.
Taiwanese media have reported that China gifted the Solomon Islands $500m for cutting ties with the self-ruled islands, which Beijing considers part of its territory, although that figure has not been officially confirmed. But deputy opposition leader Peter Kenilorea alleges individual members of parliament also received 250,000-750,000 Australian dollars each for their votes.
When a no-confidence motion was tabled in parliament last year after police used rubber bullets to disperse protesters who carried out looting and arson of Chinese-owned businesses, Beijing gave MPs 40,000 Australian dollars to vote down the motion, according to a number of opposition figures including Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, a political adviser in Malaita Province, the most populous province.
The Sogavare government has rejected claims of bribery as baseless, questioning whether the allegations were aimed at discrediting it “for the sake of justifying criminal actions and political hooliganism.” It has also insisted it would not allow a Chinese military base in the country.
Beijing has denied any intention to establish a military base in the archipelago.
“The aim of China and Solomon Islands’ security cooperation is to protect people’s life and property safety and has no military undertones,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a media briefing last month. “Relevant remarks and speculations in the media are groundless and ill-intentioned.”
“Australia is not losing influence to China in the Solomons; the average person in the street has a positive attitude towards Australians because they are the people who help us while anti-Chinese sentiments are very strong because of destructive Chinese logging and mining fishing practices that have caused massive environmental destruction,” Talifilu, who advises Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani, told Al Jazeera.
“But Australia is losing influence among the current government because Australian aid is transparent while aid from China goes directly into their pockets.”
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a senator in the Australian state of New South Wales who served as minister for international development and the Pacific between 2016 and 2018, believes the allegations have merit.
“There is a growing suspicion of Beijing’s influence over the political class in the Solomon Islands,” Fierravanti-Wells told Al Jazeera, adding that China’s actions in the South China Sea and debt-trap diplomacy “give an indication of the insidious nature of Beijing’s intent”.
While the Sogavare administration has denied all allegations of impropriety, some analysts also believe it is overly simplistic to attribute Honiara’s pivot towards Beijing to chequebook diplomacy.
“Prime Minister Sogavare explained the switch from Taiwan to China on the grounds that he expects the country to enjoy more commercial opportunities from China than Taiwan, and there is something in this idea that China has offered a convincing narrative of economic development,” said Sora, the former Australian diplomat, who is based in Honiara.
“There is also support in the Solomons for Sogavare’s opinion that the country should not be beholden to a single security partner like Australia and is looking to expand bilateral relations abroad.”
Michael O’Keefe, a lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, voiced similar sentiments.
“From the standpoint of the Solomon Islands they see that decades of Australian aid has not delivered the security outcomes they were hoping for,” O’Keefe told Al Jazeera. “So there are questions about the efficacy of the Australian approach and they are shopping around for other options.
“And from the standpoint of China, well, the US protects its citizens abroad and when China sees its nationals and investments in the Solomons are under threat, why shouldn’t China step up?” O’Keefe added.
For Australia, bolstering its position vis-a-vis China may require a shift in thinking, according to some observers.
Talifilu said Canberra should redirect aid away from official channels towards grassroots projects.
“Instead of sending huge amounts of money to the national government to build infrastructure like wharves that don’t help the common people, they should study how the Americans deliver aid in the Pacific,” he said.
“They recently announced US$25m in funding in Malaita Province for a project called SCALE that will contract NGOs and private companies to look at new ways to deliver capital for agriculture, forests and fishing to improve livelihoods. If Australia did the same, it would empower more people to vote for the opposition, which is pro-Taiwan and pro-Australia.”
O’Keefe offers an altogether different solution.
“Australia could consider collaborating with China to meet the security needs of the Solomons rather than just framing this pact as another Chinese threat,” he said. “This is actually an opportunity for Australian police to work together with their Chinese counterparts, which is already what Australia does with American, New Zealand and Fijian security personnel in the South Pacific.
“But to do that,” he added, “Canberra would have to reset its default mind-frame that sees every move China makes in the South Pacific as a threat.”