Opinion | The Pacific blunder of the West and a nonstarter AUKUS

| Balaji Subramanian

Alarm bells are ringing in the South Pacific after the government of Solomon Island signed a framework agreement on security cooperation with China. This is big news in the geostrategic circles. However, it seems the world is still obsessing over Ukraine and Russia and this unnecessary preoccupation is now costing America and its Southern Hemisphere allies in their own backyard.

Bejing calls the agreement between the Solomon Island and the People’s Republic of China, an agreement that seeks “social stability and long-term tranquillity in the Solomon Islands and is not targeted at any third country. The agreement states that China will help maintain social order, protection of the safety of people’s lives and property, humanitarian assistance, and natural disaster response,”.

However, the West fears that China once it has control of these islands, that is not far from Australia or the strategic US state of Hawaii islands which is also home to its Pacific fleet, will begin to strengthen its capacity building in that region which can transmute into political and military flashpoints in the future.

The security cooperation signed by the Soloman Island with China was long in the making and the String of Pearls hypothesis which was proposed against India is now slowly becoming a reality in the South Pacific. In 2012, When Xi Jinping was new to the top job of the communist party, Xi had said, “The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States. We welcome a constructive role by the United States in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries.”.

This diplomatic statement was made right before Xi embarked on an official trip to the United States when Barack Obama was President and was in awe of China and in that process, left Japan high and dry on certain security issues.

American laxity 

However, in the last ten years, the United States has failed to counter Chinese ambitions in the South-West and South Pacific which is part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. The US has completely failed in recognizing the strategic importance of the Solomon Islands which played such a crucial role during the Second World War as a springboard to launch operations against Japan.

Over the years, China has filled the vacuum of instability in many countries with its debt-trap diplomacy and the US effectively failed to respond to the problems faced by the Solomon Islands and had outsourced the policy-making to Australia which also failed. The policy of  “strategic oversight” extended to two regional Five Eyes partners, Australia and New Zealand is now a clear failure and has compromised the free and open Indo-Pacific.

The shortsightedness displayed by the West has now come too close to the home to roost because the Solomon Islands is key to the important Sea Lanes of Communication connecting the US, Australia, and the rest of Asia and the ultimate aim for China will be to use this strategic sea lane to disconnect the US from the rest of the Southwest and the South Pacific or most likely use it as a powerful bargaining chip in the South China sea

If that happens, Taiwan will be in big trouble because China has been using all its economic leverage to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, by courting (bribing) Solomon Islands politicians with grants and aid to drop Taipei and become part of its Belt and Road Initiative, like its Pacific island neighbours of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu.

It is a sad irony that the Americans do not even have a permanent diplomatic mission in the Solomon Islands that saw the US battle the Japanese forces in the battle of Guadalcanal where so thousands of American soldiers gave their lives in some of the most brutal combat that took place during the war. Not having any diplomatic presence on Solomon Island has definitely played its role in not allowing policymakers actionable recommendations to safeguard American interests and strategic requirements.

But what is astonishing is that the US has still not learned from its mistakes and has not yet worked on the modalities of establishing its diplomatic presence in the Pacific and working towards building strong, independent bilateral relations with each independent Pacific Island by funding, personnel, and institutional support and address the needs of Honiara (Solomon Islands), Port Vila (Vanuatu), Tarawa (Kiribati), and Nuku’alofa (Tonga).

AUKUS, a nonstarter

Though the ink is not dry on the agreement signed between China and the Solomon Island, if necessary actions are not taken, the entire region in the next decade could become a flashpoint of confrontation and AUKUS is a nonstarter and China knows this.   

The AUKUS, which China calls the “Obsolete cold war zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts” looks good on paper but it will take decades to bear fruit because it is one thing to agree to transfer cutting-edge nuclear submarine technology and another to actually build it. For Australia which will head for the general election in May 2022, enhancing its cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities will take time. 

Already China is calling for AUKUS as a replacement for ASEAN and has said that it contravenes and exploits the loopholes in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard mechanism. 

Meanwhile, China with its vast albeit under the stress industrial complex would have significantly augmented its capability in the Pacific region and that is why the by-standing days of Australia and New Zealand that has for a long time enjoyed its geostrategic location must step up to the plate and take responsibility. 

Solomon Island is very far away from the Indian Ocean Region but the growing influence of China in the Pacific region must be seen as a challenge to protecting India’s interests. Distance is an ally as long as it is not exploited by the enemy and the attack on Pearl Harbour must be a reminder for all. 

(The author is a freelance writer and has published articles on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @LaxmanShriram78)

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