Neither the war in Ukraine nor the pandemic and its economic effects. The latest dispute between China and the West has as its epicenter the remote Solomon Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific that last month signed a surprise security agreement with Beijing. Although the signatories defend their need to guarantee the stability of that small territory, the United States and, above all, Australia, fear that it will open the door to Chinese military expansion in an increasingly disputed area.

The strategic tidal wave was triggered in March, when the opposition to the local prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, leaked a draft of the pact. The text included the ability of the Solomon Islands to request police or military personnel from China to maintain social order in the event of unrest or to help in the event of a natural disaster. It also provides for Chinese ships to dock on its shores to replenish supplies. China emphasized cooperation in humanitarian assistance and “equality and mutual benefit” on which the pact is based, which “is not directed against any third party.”

His signature immediately drew widespread condemnation from his neighbors. “It seeks to undermine regional security,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, campaigning for re-election. “It is not necessary”, said his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, in addition to criticizing the lack of transparency – the final content of the agreement has not been revealed. Her biggest fear is that China’s ultimate goal is to build a naval base, something the signatories have denied.

Beijing only has one such facility in Djibouti compared to nearly 800 in the US scattered around the world. However, the mere possibility of it happening alarms Washington, which had planned to send a high-level delegation to Honiara to convince its government not to sign the agreement (unsuccessfully, as they finally arrived three days after it was signed). ). During that late visit, they warned Sogavare that they would act “accordingly” if Beijing establishes a “permanent military presence, force projection capabilities, or a military installation” in the territory. They did not rule out an armed response.

A former colony of the United Kingdom, the Solomon Islands are a territory of Melanesia made up of almost a thousand islands –six large in area– in which some 650,000 people live. After its independence (1978), the archipelago was the scene between 1998 and 2003 of violent ethnic disputes between rival groups that left more than 200 dead and thousands displaced. To help pacify the country, between 2003 and 2017 the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (Ramsi) led by Australia was deployed, which has its traditional area of ​​influence in the region.

But in recent years, as its economic, political, and military weight grows, China has struck numerous trade deals with the small, impoverished islands in the area that, in return, offer it access to vast ocean areas and empower it as a new player in the world. the strategic board of the South Pacific.

Thanks to these efforts, in 2019 he managed to get the Government of the Solomon Islands to cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan (it is said that he promised $500 million in financial aid for this). The change did not please the political opposition, which in November 2021 instigated a wave of protests to oust him in which fires broke out in Honiara’s Chinatown. Only the arrival of Australian troops brought calm to the streets, where they found three dead among the ruins of the devastated shops.

But Sogavare is less and less close to those who were his protectors. Following another recent barrage of Australian criticism of the Beijing deal, he last week blamed – without evidence – Australian security forces for refusing to protect the Chinese embassy and Chinese-funded infrastructure during the unrest.

He also charged against the Aukus treaty signed in September 2021 between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom to equip Canberra with nuclear submarines in the face of the Chinese advance. “I learned about the pact through the media. As a member of the Pacific family, we should have been consulted to ensure that it is transparent, ”she pointed out sarcastically, using the arguments they use to criticize him. Now, all of them are attentive to the next step in a region that is gaining prominence in the conflict between the two great powers of the 21st century.