Islands near Australia could be sold to China

Beijing [China]: While Australia said that the country’s taxpayers were not in any position to buy the Conflict Islands, an atoll in Papua New Guinea, Islands’ current owner, retired entrepreneur Ian Gowrie-Smith while being “baffled” by Canberra’s lack of interest noted that it is talking to Chinese buyers.
With this key development, serious concerns have been raised that these Islands’ near Australia could soon be sold to China as Canberra stressed that it cannot snap up its economy in a bid to buy them. While addressing the media, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that Australia is doing plenty to challenge China without buying the Conflict Islands, reported Russian Times.
The islands, which the current owner has threatened to sell to Beijing, are comprised of 21 coral atolls located off the eastern coast of Australia between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Albanese made clear that just to not make China get ahold of any of the Conflict Islands it cannot go ahead and buy them. Noting that the Conflict Islands are just a few of over 500 islands, Albanese argued that Australian taxpayers were not in any position to buy all of them.
“If sellers of assets came through the media [to] say, ‘I want Australia to buy this or else there’s implications, we’ll sell it to China’, think about where that ends, in terms of taxpayers,” the Australian PM said.
It must be noted that Ian Gowrie-Smith had emailed the Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in June with an offer to sell the Conflict Islands for ASD 36 million (USD 25 million).
Ian Gowrie-Smith said that as the Conflict Islands are located strategically and the three massive data cables that carry Australia’s data along the ocean floor, they pose an added national security interest given the Solomon Islands’ recent signing of a security pact with China. He also warned that if he did not receive a response, he would sell them to Beijing.
With no response forthcoming, Gowrie-Smith did the media rounds, declaring he was “baffled” by the lack of interest given that at least one of the atolls could fit a military runway and claiming his “agent” was already talking to Chinese buyers.
“I don’t know whether [the proposed deals] are of a strategic nature, but the fact of the matter is they have the money,” he said.
April’s signing of a secretive security cooperation agreement by Solomon Islands and China understandably created a huge stir in Australasia and the South Pacific. The deal could potentially pave the way for a full-blown Chinese military base in the Solomons, but how much of a threat would such an installation pose?
Since World War II, Australia, France, New Zealand and the USA have been comfortable as undisputed “masters” of the South Pacific. For decades, no outside power has been able to make their way in, but that is changing with Chinese economic and diplomatic largesse.
Via economic aid and investment, China has spread its influence wide across the Pacific, sometimes for the better, but often not. In Solomon Islands, for example, commercial logging companies – primarily Malaysian and Chinese – are decimating the islands’ forests; some 90% of this timber goes to China.
As so often happens in history, the flag follows the trade. In 2019, China was Solomon Islands’ top import and export destination, with a total value near USD515 million. Solomon Islands shifted recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Out of 16 Pacific nations, only the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu retain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Chinese companies around the world represent the tail of the dragon, but they are all masterminded by the dragon’s head in Beijing. Chinese investors are in the vanguard, but Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials and organs inexorably follow.
In the Pacific, Beijing is capitalizing on inherent weaknesses in smaller nations, bullying the gullible and satiating the greedy with money. It knows that regulatory frameworks are too weak in places like Solomon Islands to resist pressure. Political systems in a number of Pacific nations are already fragile, and Chinese activities undermine their democracies.
Interestingly, Fiji was the first Pacific country to sign a security agreement with China, with a memorandum of understanding on police cooperation in 2011, and one in 2014 on defense issues like border control, equipment and training. However, those agreements, revolving mostly around transnational crime, are very different to Honiara’s open-ended commitments to China.
Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese domestic and foreign policy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, wrote: “…Pacific island nations often lack the capacity to address these challenges. In some, notably Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, CCP political interference may have so weakened democracy that there appears to be next to no political will to examine China’s interference activities.”
Brady continued: “China’s broad approach to political interference makes extensive use of assets, disinformation, ‘useful idiots’ and proxies”. These efforts, including “elite capture”, are supervised by the United Work Front Department of the CCP. They routinely target local government and local authorities rather than the national level where approaches might be more robustly resisted. The CCP terms this “using the local to surround the central; using the countryside to surround the cities”.
The Kiwi academic noted: “United Front Work is designed to corrode and corrupt democratic political systems, to weaken communities and divide them against each other, and to erode the critical voice of the media. It turns elites into clients of the CCP through financial and other inducements. It’s also used to develop asset relationships, to access sensitive technology and to promote the CCP’s foreign policy agenda.”
China certainly took advantage of the riots in Honiara in late 2021 to obtain greater access to Solomon Islands. At that time, China requested permission to import weaponry such as ten 5.8mm assault rifles, two light machine guns and a 7.62mm sniper rifle for a ten-man plain-clothes security team to guard its embassy in Honiara.
Then, in February, six Chinese policemen began training the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, even conducting firearms training using replica assault rifles mysteriously delivered via a Chinese logging ship.
A security presence in the Solomons would certainly allow China to better protect its interests and expatriate citizens there. This aligns with China’s amendment of its Law on National Defense, which permits the government to protect development interests around the world. The law is rather ambiguous, so that Beijing is left with plenty of options for action and escalation.
According to a leaked draft of the security cooperation framework agreement, “Solomon Islands may, according to its needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties.”
It continued, “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to carry out logistical replenishment in and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands.”
The highly secretive agreement has an initial duration of five years, but will be automatically extended for five-year periods unless specifically terminated by either party. Although there is no specific mention of a military base, it seems inevitable given that the agreement discusses logistical support.
This could lead to a similar arrangement to what China has in Djibouti, where PLA troops are stationed at a sizeable military base, and where Chinese warships and aircraft routinely visit. Such a base would be just 2,000km from Australia’s Queensland coast. Both parties insist there is no plan to establish a military base, China rubbishing it as “utterly misinformation deliberately spread with political motive”.

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