China expands military might as far as French borders with Solomon Islands pact

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China has signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, a tiny state in the Pacific Ocean. The US and Australia are furious and worry that Beijing might want to expand its naval operations. The agreement also means that China's sphere of influence now extends to French territory as the Solomon Islands share a common sea border with French Caledonia.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was defiant Wednesday about his decision to sign the security pact with China in the face of lobbying from the United States and Australia.

Sogavare said it was an "honour and privilege" to tell parliament the deal had been signed by officials in Honiara and Beijing "a few days ago".

The deal, announced Tuesday by Beijing, has faced sharp criticism from the United States and Australia, which fear the pact could lead to China gaining a military foothold in the South Pacific.

A copy of a draft version of the agreement, retweeted by Anna Powles, a security studies specialist with New Zealand's Massey University, leaked last month, sent shock waves across the region.

According to Article 1 of the agreement, Solomon Islands "may request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to assist in maintaining social order."

The agreement adds that "China may ... make ship visits to ... Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects on the Solomon Islands."

Although Solomon Islands authorities have insisted that this is not carte blanche for a Beijing-sponsored construction of a military base, Australia and the US fear that this may be a first step.

As a result of the leaked draft, Washington and Canberra moved into diplomatic overdrive to prevent the deal - Australia's Pacific minister Zed Seselja even paid a personal visit to the islands - but all was in vain.

The Solomon Islands and China have been moving closer in recent years, with Sogavare's government severing ties with Taiwan in September 2019, just days before its Pacific neighbour Kiribati followed suit by recognising Beijing.

New neighbours for France?

Another country that has interests in the region is France. One of its Pacific territories - New Caledonia - borders the Solomon Islands.

In 1991, Paris and the Solomon Islands signed an "Agreement on maritime delimitation" defining the line that separated the waters surrounding New Caledonia from those belonging to the Solomons.

Like Australia and the US, France is equally concerned about the growing Chinese military presence in the pacific.

The French Ministry of Defence's Strategic Update 2021 warns that "the People’s Republic of China ... has doubled its defence budget since 2012, making it the second largest in the world, while expanding its nuclear arsenal and showing new ambitions in terms of power projection."

France was initially happy to engage in some of the military exercises that Quad countries -the US, Australia, India and Japan- were organising.

But when Australia dumped a lucrative French submarine deal in exchange for a US contract for nuclear subs and membership of the trilateral Aukus alliance between Canberra, London and Washington, France's enthusiasm for a common defence policy cooled.

Though relations are back to normal now, France has not yet joined US and Australian protests about the latest Chinese attempt to gain influence in the region.

France currently deploys 7,000 defense personnel, 15 warships and 38 aircraft in the Indo-Pacific area. The islands of Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia together account for some 1.6 million French citizens.

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