This article by Carlos Martinez first appeared on Friends of Socialist China.
The Anglo ruling classes have gone into a state of frenzy over a recently-signed security agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Solomon Islands. Various people who had barely heard of the Solomon Islands just a few weeks ago are now expressing grave concern that this small sovereign nation could be used as a pawn by an aggressive and expansionist China in its bid for world domination.
The deal itself appears to be entirely ordinary, allowing for China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands,” in addition to providing the Solomon Islands police with training and – on invitation – support. Indeed, the Solomon Islands already has similar security cooperation arrangements with Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Fiji; as such, the deal with China simply represents a desire to “seek greater security partnership with other partners and neighbours.”
Responding to criticism of the deal by Australian and US politicians, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare assured that it was signed “with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests”, and that it has been developed not as a means of power projection but of addressing the island nation’s security needs.
Nonetheless, Western politicians and media have reacted with an anxiety bordering on the hysterical. Indeed the Australian government made repeated attempts to prevent the deal being signed in the first place, and its failure has prompted bitter recrimination. Allan Gyngell from the Australian Institute of International Affairs commented to BBC News that “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.” Meanwhile, opposition leader Anthony Albanese described Australia’s failure to prevent the agreement going through as “a massive foreign policy failure” and “a Pacific stuff-up”. The Australian Labor Party is now promising that it will “restore Australia’s place as the partner of choice in the Pacific” if it is successful in the coming federal elections.
Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton condemned the security deal in overtly racist terms, implying that China had bribed the Solomon Islands leadership. “We don’t pay off, we don’t bribe people, and the Chinese certainly do.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed Dutton up in characteristically incoherent fashion, describing China as “an autocratic nation that is not playing by the normal rules on how they seek to influence other nations in our region.”
Meanwhile, David Llewellyn-Smith, founding publisher and former editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, said the quiet part out loud, calling for Australian armed forces to “invade and capture Guadalcanal such that we engineer regime change.” To kick things off, Australia should “immediately begin amassing an amphibious invasion force to add pressure.”
In summary, the entire political mainstream in Australia is outraged at the idea of a sovereign nation in the Pacific exercising its right to sign a security deal without Australia’s explicit approval. Karen Andrews, Home Affairs Minister, stated boldly that the Pacific “is our backyard, … is our neighbourhood.” Such flagrantly colonialist language, strongly reminiscent of the notorious Monroe Doctrine (in which Latin America is “America’s backyard”), is not unusual in Australian policy circles.
The hypocrisy is particularly stark given that Australia also has a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Indeed between 2003 and 2013 Australia “led a contingent of military personnel, police and civilians” in the country, and maintains a presence of 115 troops there. The 2017 bilateral security treaty between the two countries allows for “Australian police, defence and associated civilian personnel to be deployed rapidly to the Solomon Islands in the event of an emergency.”
Australia is only a relatively minor imperialist power, acting essentially as a regional agent of the US (or as George W Bush memorably put it, as a “deputy sheriff”). As expected, the US ruling class shares Australia’s concerns in relation to the China-Solomon Islands deal. Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs rushed to the Solomon Islands shortly after the announcement of the security agreement in order to express his discontent; specifically, to “let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns.”
Kritenbrink pointedly refused to rule out the prospect of US military action against the Solomon Islands if China were to establish a naval base there.
It’s noteworthy that the US is so worried about the possibility of China building a military base in the Solomon Islands. There is certainly nothing in the security agreement indicating that such a base would be built; indeed a statement by China’s embassy asserted that “the so-called establishment of Chinese military bases is fake news made up by someone with ulterior motives.” The US, meanwhile, maintains hundreds of military bases in the region, including in South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Australia, the Philippines and Guam (a US colony). According to what principle would it object to China having a military base?
The principle is simply that the US considers itself “the world’s policeman” and affords itself the right to impose its uncontested hegemony. That is, while it hypocritically claims to uphold a “rules-based international order”, it is in fact a rogue state, intent on consolidating and expanding an imperialist system built around the narrow interests of its ruling class.
Meanwhile Damian Cave, writing in the New York Times, complains that Prime Minister Sogavare “has shown little interest in listening to Australia, the United States or other Pacific Island nations”. In failing to act as a humble proxy of US-led imperialism, Sogavare has “shaken his own democracy and the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region.”
The language used by US and Australian politicians and journalists is highly revealing. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin pointed out, these two Anglo-Saxon powers are attempting to construct a Pacific Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century.
Cold War in the Pacific
The Solomon Islands is composed of six large islands and over 900 smaller islands, not far from Papua New Guinea. While its territory has been populated by humans for some 30,000 years, it entered Western consciousness for the first time in 1893 when it was colonised by Britain. It remained the British Solomon Islands Protectorate until the late 1970s, when it won its independence. Queen Elizabeth II continues to be its head of state.
Since gaining independence in 1978, the Solomon Islands have been largely neglected by the country’s putative allies in Washington and Canberra, left to overcome the legacy of a century of colonialism and underdevelopment whilst trying to navigate life on the periphery of globalised capitalism. The resulting poverty and inequality, combined with continuous exposure to imperialist culture, have led to high crime rates, inter-ethnic and regional tensions, and poor public health outcomes.
In this context, the country’s national leadership has shifted its geopolitical orientation somewhat in recent years, in particular opting to deepen its relationship with China in order to attract investment and learn from the latter’s experiences in poverty reduction. Prime Minister Sogavare has stated that the Solomon Islands seeks to expand cooperation with China in the areas of trade, investment, agriculture, fishery and tourism. Closer links between the two countries are already paying off, with China providing the Solomon Islands with hundreds of thousands of doses of its Covid-19 vaccines.
While improved links with China are a no-brainer for the people of the region, they are causing serious headaches in Washington. The US was outraged when, in 2019, the Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing and announced that it would join the Belt and Road Initiative.
Washington went so far as to pledge 25 million USD to Malaita, the country’s most populous island, in a bid to bribe it into breaking with national policy and maintaining its ties with Taiwan. No serious attempt was made to obscure the nature of this bribe. Dr Terence Wood from the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre noted that the 25 million represents 50 times what Malaita received in total from aid donors last year. “I’d almost certainly think that the United States is focusing on Malaita right now because it sees Malaita as a potential source of support, in its own geostrategic struggle with China in the region.”
Daniel Suidani, Malaita’s premier, duly did as instructed, maintaining the island’s relationship with Taiwan and encouraging residents to protest against the central government’s China policy. These protests reached their climax in November 2021, when rioters attacked the parliament and attempted to overthrow the government. There were a number of attacks specifically directed at Chinese businesses. It’s obviously no coincidence that a large proportion of the rioters were from Malaita, and that Daniel Suidani led the calls for Prime Minister Sogavare to step down, claiming he had “elevated the interest of foreigners” – that is, Chinese – “above those of Solomon Islanders.”
Incidentally, and ironically, Australian troops were deployed to help control the violence.
The broader context here is of course the escalating US-led New Cold War, in which China is enemy number one. Hegemony over the Pacific is a core component of this war, and the US has been steadily increasing its militarisation of the region for the last decade, stepping up its naval presence in the South China Sea; bolstering its Indo-Pacific Command; and rampaging up its war games, joint exercises, and its development and deployment of advanced weaponry. NATO made it clear in 2021 that it now considers China to be a “full-spectrum systemic rival.”
In 2021, the US, Britain and Australia surprised and shocked the world with the announcement of a new trilateral security pact, AUKUS. Under this agreement, writes Jenny Clegg, “the US and UK are to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, not only violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but also subverting the nuclear weapons free zones of South East Asia and the South Pacific.” Since then, it has been announced that the AUKUS countries will cooperate on the development of hypersonic weapons. (It’s worth mentioning in passing that, while Australia and the US have complained bitterly about not being consulted regarding the China-Solomon Islands security agreement, nobody consulted either China or the Solomon Islands about AUKUS – even though, as Sogavare has pointed out, it will “affect the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters”).
AUKUS constitutes an incipient Pacific extension of NATO. As such it seems the US is pursuing a coordinated global military infrastructure to reinforce its Cold War aims.
Where do the Solomon Islands fit into this picture? Maintaining client states in the Pacific is part of the overall project of China encirclement and containment. Chen Hong, writing in the Global Times, puts it well: “The US, assisted by its local proxy Australia, has been attempting to assemble a small anti-China clique in the region as a way to serve its own interests and goals.” The current hysteria over China’s relationship with the Solomon Islands is therefore inextricably connected with the US’s continuing “pivot to Asia” and its attempts to preserve, consolidate and expand its hegemony.
It was entirely predictable that the US and Australian ruling classes would be offended by the growing China-Solomon Islands friendship. However, there has also been some fairly sharp criticism from an unexpected source: the Canadian anti-imperialist author and political analyst Stephen Gowans. Gowans, who has written extensively in opposition to the nefarious activities of US imperialism in Syria, Korea, Libya and elsewhere, writes that “the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is a manifestation of imperialism.”
He declares that modern imperialism is defined by two central dynamics: “large countries exploiting profit-making opportunities in smaller countries” and “large countries competing among themselves to monopolise the sum total of the world’s profit-making opportunities.” He apparently believes that China aims “to create a security architecture to protect its tycoons’ investments” and to “counter US domination of shipping lanes important to China’s capitalist economy.” As such, according to Gowans’ definition and description, China is behaving as an imperialist power in the Pacific.
Any serious analysis of the dynamics of the New Cold War is almost totally absent in this analysis. Everyone on the anti-imperialist left can presumably agree that the US and its allies are engaged in imperialism in the Pacific. And it is abundantly clear that China opposes US imperialism in the Pacific; opposes US weapons sales to Taiwan; opposes AUKUS; opposes the numerous and varied attempts by the US and its allies to contain, encircle, destabilise and weaken China.
Yes, China wants to be able to safely and reliably access shipping lanes. It also wants to prevent US attempts to undermine the CPC government and replace it with an administration more willing to submit to US diktat. China wishes to ensure that it can’t be subjected to a blockade; that it can import and export in accordance with its economic strategy – a strategy which brings tangible benefit not only to “Chinese billionaires” but to the entire population, which has benefitted from the most extensive poverty alleviation program in history.
Can these aims reasonably be described as an example of imperialism? In his 2018 book Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Gowans gave a pithy and useful description of imperialism, as “a process of domination guided by economic interests.” By analysing the New Cold War as an example of inter-imperialist rivalry, Gowans loses sight of the reality of the imperialist system – an imperialist alliance led by the US (and incorporating Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan) which engages precisely in a global “process of domination guided by economic interests.” This takes the form of a network of 800 military bases; unilateral sanctions against dozens of countries; wars of regime change; proxy wars; destabilisation campaigns; structural adjustment programs; nuclear threats; and more.
China is defending its legitimate interests (starting with the right to exist) and promoting mutually beneficial relations between itself and other countries. This is not the same as imperialism; to claim as such is to resort to Neither Washington Nor Beijing pseudo-Marxism. Meanwhile, China should be judged on the basis of its actions, not on the basis of an assumption that it is “driven by an expansionary capitalist logic.”
Those struggling for sovereignty and against imperialism in the real world value China as an important partner in that fight. Not without reason did Hugo Chávez talk of China and the socialist-oriented countries of Latin America constructing a “strategic alliance with the strength of the Great Wall” against US hegemonism.
China is providing aid, trade and investment; it is helping the Solomon Islands and other countries in the region to break out of underdevelopment. It is not sponsoring regime change, it is not interfering in other countries’ political systems, it isn’t imposing political conditions on its loans. It is conducting itself on the basis of solidarity and mutual benefit, and in accordance with the principles of non-interference. Such a model of international relations is crucial to the further development of a multipolar world; it is by definition not imperialist.