Inside Story

Ambiguous embrace

Australia’s impassioned worries about China are in tension with better relations in the Pacific

Hamish McDonald Books 3 April 2023 2180 words

Between controversies: prime minister Anthony Albanese with his Solomon Islands counterpart, Manasseh Sogavare, at last July’s Pacific Islands Forum in Suva. Joe Armao/Pool/Reuters

It was early 2022 and alert signals were flashing in intelligence and defence agencies in Canberra and Washington. The Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare was about to sign a security agreement with China. Canberra acted quickly, but it was costly. It sent two officials who had led the multinational Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, the emergency response to ethnic conflict that began in 2003 and ended up running for fourteen years and costing $2.6 billion.

That the two officials — diplomat Nick Warner and former army officer Paul Symon — had gone on to head the Australian Secret Intelligence Service was a twist Sogavare must have noticed. Warner and Symon might have had close knowledge of the Solomons, and of Sogavare himself, but their ASIS links were also a reminder that Canberra could act behind the scenes if it wanted.

Which is what it did. Australian intelligence leaked the text of the Solomons–China security pact to Sogavare’s most feared domestic rival, Daniel Suidani, premier of the populous island of Malaita. Suidani, who had fallen out with Sogavare when the latter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, had continued to deal with Taipei and talked of possible secession.

Jawboning by Scott Morrison and Joe Biden’s administration had persuaded Sogavare to disavow any intent to allow Chinese military bases. Yet he went ahead and signed the security pact anyway.

In response to the leak, Sogavare’s critics in the national parliament moved a vote of no-confidence. It failed amid allegations that Chinese interests had bribed MPs to support the prime minister. Mobs opposed to the deal looted and burned large parts of Honiara, including its thriving Chinatown. Australia and New Zealand sent in police and soldiers. Australia and China then competed to supply weapons and vehicles to the Royal Solomon Islands Police. (The country of 700,000 has no military.)

Meanwhile, an attempt by Beijing to broaden its foothold turned into a debacle. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stormed a Pacific Islands Forum session in Fiji offering a broad security pact with the ten island states that recognise Beijing. He was rebuffed for trying to pre-empt the extensive consultation that such regional initiatives require.

The crisis was over. But strategic rivalry simmers. Last year, thirty-three Solomons police officers went to China for extended training. Just before Anthony Albanese visited Port Moresby in January to cajole PNG’s James Marape into a bilateral security treaty and announce expanded seasonal worker places, Beijing gave the PNG defence force a new hospital. The United States might have reopened its embassy in Honiara, but when Sogavare hosts the South Pacific Games in a new Chinese-built stadium this November, a VIP from Beijing will no doubt be guest of honour.

In Australia, meanwhile, the perceived Chinese threat in the Pacific has created a school of academic and think-tank study. As Michael Wesley observes in the superb first chapter of his new history of RAMSI, Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, Australia’s worries tap into an old seam. Denial of the Pacific to anti-Western interests is “arguably the foundational imperative of Australian international policy,” Wesley argues. Hence the “disproportional reactions” when Pacific states court deals with potentially hostile interests, which have included the Soviet Union, Gaddafi’s Libya and Chavez’s Venezuela.

At such moments, Canberra is wont to call on its imperial friends, the British and now the Americans, to do the heavy lifting in defence and aid. “Australia’s engagement with the Pacific is a story of passion outstripping actions, of ambitions outstripping abilities,” Wesley writes. “It is a record of long stretches of lassitude and inattention punctuated by intense periods of concern and engagement.”

If pieces like David Kilcullen’s essay in the latest edition of Australian Foreign Affairs can get a run then we are in one of those intense periods. Stepping outside his usual field of counterinsurgency, Kilcullen makes much of China’s vaunted but largely untested claims to have “carrier-busting” steerable ballistic missiles, and conjures up a Chinese thrust down through the Pacific like that of Japan in 1942, using island missile bases to cut us off from America.

Why it would want to do this is unfathomable. Unlike Japan at that time, China has all the petroleum and strategic minerals it wants from willing sellers like Australia. Its military focus is on securing the South China Sea for its ballistic missile submarine force and keeping up pressure on Taiwan. Forces projected into the South Pacific would be sitting ducks. But, says Kilcullen, don’t look at intent, look at capabilities. By this measure, I’d add, India is also a threat.

Rory Medcalf, who heads the spook school known as the National Security College at the Australian National University, accepts China’s “neo-colonial ambitions” in the Pacific as a given, but is more nuanced. A Chinese military base would be a direct threat, he says. “But even absent that scenario, the prospect of a Pacific island government turning to the guns and truncheons of a one-party nationalist megastate to supress domestic dissent is confronting.”

Again unconsciously tapping into the buck-passing tradition traced by Wesley, he sees Australia acting as a “guide and an informal coordinator” for powers in Europe, North America and Asia “poised to help the Pacific cope with China’s disruptive power.” But he also has to acknowledge that the “Indo-Pacific” perspective of which he has been a leading proponent can be seen by Pacific islanders as diluting their regional identity and demanding they take America’s side against China.

On that score, there have been no takers. As Wesley remarked at the launch of his book, the attitude of Pacific governments to Chinese aid and investment is “bring it on.” The region has never had so much aid from, and access to, Australia and other US-aligned powers.

Peter Connolly, a recently retired Australian army colonel who recently finished an ANU doctorate on China in Melanesia, shows in his Australian Foreign Affairs essay, “Grand Strategy,” just how flexible, resourced and patient China’s approach to the region is becoming. The last few years have seen a leap in the quality of its diplomats posted to Melanesian capitals: two senior colonels of the People’s Liberation Army intelligence branch became defence attachés in Port Moresby and Suva in 2020; elsewhere, in countries without militaries, senior police officers are posted as liaison officers.

Senior colonel Zhang Xiaojiang found the PNG defence force less open to cultivation, so he has concentrated on the under-resourced Royal PNG Constabulary, upgrading its CCTV surveillance in Port Moresby, funding a new medical clinic and sending in riot-control equipment ahead of last year’s elections. “By sensing gaps and enquiring about needs he gradually discovered ways to develop appreciation for the PRC” — the People’s Republic of China — “and appeared to learn from PNG’s traditional partners in the process,” Connolly writes.

Police forces across Melanesia certainly have plenty of resource gaps. By focusing on a Chinese military threat that seems quite improbable, our security watchdogs are barking up the wrong tree, ignoring the real security issues facing Pacific islanders, particularly in Melanesia.

Only in Fiji do the police have anything like the numbers widely seen as appropriate to population: some 3000 officers for 900,000 people. And it was there, during Frank Bainimarama’s recently ended prime ministership, that the police became an instrument of political repression without much Chinese assistance.

Solomon Islands has 1150 police for its 736,000 population, and PNG only 7300 (including reserves) for a population generally put somewhere around ten million. The PNG force has hardly grown since independence in 1975, while the population has trebled.

Few citizens rely on the PNG police for help. If they do, they must pay, ostensibly for fuel and other call-out expenses but also with an element of straight-out bribery. The police can be brutal, corrupt and under-trained. Often, they act as guns for hire used by loggers and other commercial interests to repress local communities. It’s for these reasons that citizens report crime and conflict to traditional elders, pastors in their church or neighbourhood committees in urban settlements.

A recent study for the PNG-Australia Policing Partnership, a forum for the police leadership in both countries, urged a doubling of PNG police numbers, an annual budget lift of around $51 million and a one-off injection of $1.6 billion to provide the resources the force needs to do its job.

Sinclair Dinnen, a long-term ANU-based scholar of the region’s crime and security, doubts this is the answer. “The police have to be better looked after,” he tells me after his recent field trip to PNG. “But in some ways there’s an argument for having a small, well looked after, professional force who have enough fuel and access to transport, who are skilled up in investigations and doing the policing kind of thing.”

At grassroots level, Dinnen sees another tier of security modelled on the “community auxiliary police” New Zealand has been funding in Bougainville since the end of the civil war there two decades ago. The island has only three police stations, often unmanned. The auxiliary police, drawn from communities, are often better educated than the regular police; in consultation with local chiefs, they deal with less serious crimes.

In some parts of PNG, Dinnen concedes, restoring law and order requires more than this hybrid model. He points to regions like Hela and Enga, where winners and losers emerge from large-scale resource projects and rivals fight it out with military-grade firearms. “You get what are low levels of insurgency, in fact,” he says. “And no police force should be expected to deal with that.”

Wesley’s book shows us that RAMSI strayed into this field of community policing for a while. After the initial success in restoring peace, “a cultural divide between modes of policing, which came to be seen as ‘Western’ versus ‘Pacific’ ways, began to open up,” he writes. Australian and New Zealand officers were seen as enforcement-oriented and aloof. Police from the Pacific islands invested time and effort in building links to local communities, taking care to respect cultural and religious values and acknowledge traditional leadership structures.

The islands police “understood the importance of sharing food, attending church, and working with traditional kastom processes to help resolve disputes,” writes Wesley. With police likely to be underfunded once RAMSI packed up, it was a good model. But for reasons Wesley doesn’t explain the pilot scheme’s funding ended after five years; presumably the scheme was beyond Canberra’s comprehension.

Wesley, who was deputy director of the Office of National Assessments at the time, sees an unusual confluence in the circumstances that gave birth to RAMSI. The Solomons government was on its knees and bankrupt; John Howard was flush with his accidental success in East Timor; and, with the disaster of Iraq still to become apparent, it was the high-water mark of muscular Western nation-rebuilding intervention.

It is hard now to think of any government that would allow large numbers of foreign police and finance officials — with legal immunity, investigative and arrest powers, and tax-free status — to handle a country’s security.

For all the diplomatic nuances used to gain regional cover for Australia’s intervention and the initial restoration of civil order, though, RAMSI gradually ran out of steam as local politicos reasserted their role as distributors of state resources. Within five years of RAMSI’s departure, Australia was again sending in riot police and soldiers to quell unrest and providing more lethal firearms to local police.

Now, Canberra’s focus is elsewhere, as it orders longer-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles to fend off the perceived threat of an attack by China. The Australian Federal Police has set up a new Pacific branch directed at border security and drug smuggling — our problems — rather than nurturing models of policing that suit Pacific communities. Dinnen, for one, suggests Canberra needs to cool it. “Sogavare is not going to be there forever, and in Honiara and PNG below the elite level there’s a lot of anti-Chinese racism that breaks out in urban areas.”

In her essay in the latest Australian Foreign Affairs, Solomons journalist Dorothy Wickham cites community-level fears of where the Chinese embrace might take the government. But she also points out that islanders’ everyday contact is less with Australians than with Chinese people: “Australians are here as aid workers, diplomats and police, but they are not mixing with local people.” With thousands of young islanders getting involved with the Pacific labour schemes in Australia and New Zealand, a new familiarity and affection is possible — as long as abuses are seen to be punished.

As for geopolitical rivalries, “the Solomon Islands government should try to get what it can from foreign powers,” Wickham writes. “But we need to choose those things with long-term benefits in mind. We should be careful what we wish for.” •

Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands
By Michael Wesley | Melbourne University Press | $39.99 | 310 pages

Girt by China: Power Play in the Pacific
Australian Foreign Affairs | Issue 17, February 2023 | $24.99 | 128 pages