Author: James Kell, ANU
It’s 2023. Civil unrest on the streets of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, threatens another coup. At the request of the Solomon Islands government, the Chinese Communist Party provides its Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) peacekeepers to quell the violence. In a process honed on the streets of Hong Kong and Urumqi, the PLA is effective in executing the government’s wishes.
As part of this peacekeeping operation, a temporary base is built, Hikvision and SenseTime facial recognition cameras are installed around the island and peace is restored. To maintain peace and provide a means for administering the public security system, the base housing the PLA soldiers is made semi-permanent. The deep-water port at Tulagi Island, long sought after by the Chinese dictatorship, is handed to the PLA Navy for a 99-year lease as a thank you gesture. The Solomon Islands effectively become Communist Chinese territory.
In 2003 Premier Hu Jintao proposed a revisionist history of Chinese discovery of Australia, which was subsequently reinforced by ambassadors and foreign ministers as late as 2016. The Chinese Communist Party has a strong motivation to control what it considers to be its region. Anti-interference laws passed in Canberra in 2017 were a response to China’s proven intention to interfere with Australian politics. Less able to interfere with Australian politics, China recently signed a memorandum of understanding to invest $200 million in a fishing operation at Daru, an area without many fish but situated 200 kilometres from Australia’s coast.
Communist China now possesses the world’s largest navy. Their naval expansion proceeds at pace, especially in blue-water and grey zone capability. See here for an example of grey zone aggression in the South China Sea. A large blue-water navy is able to extend significant capabilities in China’s region and around the globe. China has been actively searching for dual-use port facilities in the Pacific, such as in Vanuatu where China funded a port ostensibly commercial, but also able to accommodate PLA-Navy vessels.
The Japanese map below shows zones of influence in the Pacific. This coldly analytical representation indicates Chinese control of all the islands considered to be Australia’s neighbours, forming a line that could give China right to deny Australian merchant vessels. In these countries the CCP is employing systematic methods of capturing political elites, creating commercial dependence and erosion of their democracies, ultimately as a precursor to military and political predominance.
Pacific countries have memories of great powers fighting over their territory in the lead up to WW2. People in these countries generally want to live in peace, to improve their lives and not to involve themselves in great power competition.
Currently, Australia is the largest donor to the Pacific islands. Kiribati uses the Australian dollar. Yet in 2019, Kiribati dropped its recognition of Taiwan in favour of Communist China. In 2021, the PIF split up. Australia is failing in its Pacific Step-up.
There are two agendas at present: development and national security. While not natural bed partners, they need to become just that. As it turns out, development is integral to security and without security, Australia cannot conduct development. Far more needs to be done here. If the response is “it’s already being done”, please show us where this is reducing the horizontal purple lines in the map above.
New Zealand has a different agenda to Australia in the Pacific, and it is harming Australia. China is successfully employing a “divide and conquer” strategy, ostracising Australia while feting New Zealand. As such, New Zealand have become an unreliable security partner. Australia must coordinate with the Quad, rather than New Zealand, in matters of South Pacific security.
One of the easiest areas for the Chinese Communists to exploit in dividing the region is Australia’s climate policy. Climate change is felt viscerally in the south Pacific, with islands literally flooding on a high tide. Whilst Australia maintains an incoherent climate policy that favours fossil fuels, its credibility in the region is easy pickings for Communist China.
In the Solomon Islands, long considered Australia’s zone of influence, the only regular media source is Radio New Zealand. Part of Communist China’s method of non-kinetic warfare is control of the media. Australia needs to invest in media, both English and Chinese, in the region.
The above will not solve the problem, but they will stem the bleeding. Australia is dealing with a highly coordinated, strategic adversary. Some things become clearest when they are too late to remedy. Maintaining Australia’s lines of essential trade, and indeed our sovereignty, requires us to maintain an independent South Pacific. We have much work to do in not a lot of time. This is no time for complacency.
James Kell is a Master of National Security Policy student at the Australian National University.