Tension high as China's influence in South Pacific region grows

Australia to send military aid as violent protests continue in the Solomon Islands and fresh concerns over lurking Chinese spy ships off the Australia's east coast

Tension high as China's influence in South Pacific region grows
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Violent protests continue in the Solomon Islands after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare resigned over accusations he strengthened ties with China at the expense of Taiwan which he said, ‘put him on the right side of history’.

Anti-government protesters have since set fire to buildings in Honiara and large crowds remain on the move through Chinatown.

Tensions escalated when the Solomon Islands broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and formalised their relationship with China under Sogavare’s direction, which triggered an independence referendum in Malaita – the largest province in the Solomon Islands.

China offered $730 million in financial aid to the Solomon Islands provided they cut their thirty-six year diplomatic connection with Taiwan.

We sincerely regret and strongly condemn the [Solomon Islands] government's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China,” said Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen.

Not everyone was happy with the decision. Malaita Province Premier Daniel Duidana has remained staunchly in favour of Taiwan after it provided Covid assistance, PPE, and food aid to the region allegedly against the new national law. Relations between the two nations have been on good terms.

Senior politicians also published a letter in 2019 condemning Sogavare’s switch to China.

“We believe the long-term interests of our country — in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity, and mutual respect — lie with Taiwan, not the PRC. […] “We are aware of important lessons from many countries — including in our region — who are locked in a serious debt trap as a result of their giving in to China's lures.”

Pro-Taiwan protests broke out through Malaita, calling for independence from the pro-China government. The island has turned down China’s debt-trap diplomacy, rejecting infrastructure projects which have left other island nations in the Pacific with Chinese-occupied ports.

Australia has honoured its commitment to assist its Pacific neighbours by sending 23 Federal police, armed ADF units, and diplomats to urgently contain the situation earlier in the week.

Our purpose here is to provide stability and security,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “We have always been there to help our Pacific neighbours when they need us.”

The Prime Minister was careful not to pick sides as the internal political conflict plays out. Particularly, the Prime Minister may be wary of upsetting China.

The Solomon Islands remain a flashpoint in the Pacific against China’s diplomatic acquisition of satellite nations. Many other nations have quietly allowed China to build colossal infrastructure projects while leaders accepted money and gifts from the PRC. The end result has been the creation of militarily significant ports and bases scattered through Pacific nations under Chinese control.

It is the same process with India, where China has encircled its largest political threat (and one of Australia’s most important military allies) with Chinese assets including the vital deep water Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government was forced to hand over the port to China after it failed to make repayments on the Chinese debt, giving China full control of the port along with 15,000 acres of land causing a strategic nightmare for India.

Australia is certainly being watched.

A Chinese spy ship was caught lurking in the waters off Darwin for three weeks. Although it remained outside Australia’s waters and did not break any international laws, it appeared to be engaging in unfriendly activities as it followed the coast from Darwin to Sydney.

Minister for Defence Peter Dutton said that their purpose probably involved reconnaissance.

They will be involved in intelligence collection, signals collection. They will be looking to survey different attributes and have that general presence,” said Mr Dutton.

A Chinese surveillance ship was also spotted off the coast of Queensland inside Australian waters, watching military exercises while the strategic Port of Darwin remains under a Chinese lease. In 2019, three Chinese warships sailed into Sydney Harbour unannounced during a tense political standoff regarding China’s (widely held to be unreasonable) claims over the South China Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army has no intention to cause anyone trouble, but is not afraid to face up to troubles. Should anyone risk crossing the bottom line, the People’s Liberation Army will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies,” said a Chinese General to the Shangri La Dialogue forum, when asked about the warships.

Satellite images show China weaponizing the South China Sea with the transformation of reefs, islands, and atolls into military bases – most of these within disputed waters.

In recent months, armed Chinese military jets have been flying low over Taiwan and its waters. This is part of a general escalation of tension from the Communist regime in Beijing, which has set about reclaiming old territories in recent years.

China has either the largest naval force – or very close to it – after spending decades building up its fleet. Australia remains dependent on its allies, particularly the United States, to defend itself against military activity in the Pacific.

China broke binding international treaties several years ago when it reclaimed Hong Kong by force and has since imposed harsh laws and Chinese rule over the previously autonomous region, triggering a mass exodus into British territories. Before that, the world watched in horror as Tibet’s monasteries were burned and its holy lands looted. Today, Tibet and Xinjiang have controversial concentration camps to re-educate the population, while Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dali Lama, remains in exile in India.

Taiwan is next on the agenda, with Beijing issuing threats to the independent nation and insisting that it will be folded back into China with military force if it refuses to give up its sovereignty voluntarily.

While the world could do little to help Hong Kong, Taiwan has been preparing for China’s invasion for generations and has turned the island nation into a military fortress that, according to experts, would take the largest naval activity in human history to successfully invade.

No one is sure if China is capable of taking Taiwan – including China – which may explain why Beijing has been trying to isolate Taiwan from its diplomatic allies.

China has also issued threats of nuclear war on Japan if it were to intervene in the Taiwan issue – which it almost certainly will – as Taiwan forms the gateway to Japan’s most important trade routes. Japan has committed itself to defending Taiwan with military force, while Europe and the United States have all moved warships into the Pacific in case China makes good on its threat.

While China spies on Australia with ships, we have voluntarily left them in possession of sensitive military data.

In February 2021, the Australian Federal government renewed its contract with Global Switch despite serious security concerns.

The company has hosted Australia’s sensitive and high-security Defence data for some time. Originally a British company, Elegant Jubilee – a Chinese consortium – bought 49% of the parent company (Aldersgate Investments) causing an ownership change for Global Switch in 2016.

Then-Treasurer Scott Morrison said in 2017 that the Defence data would be shifted back to a government-owned hub for security reasons, but later decided to extend their contracts with Global Switch after he became Prime Minister.

All our data centres provide our customers with world class reliability, security and flexibility,” said Global Switch’s group director for the Asia-Pacific Damon Reid. “Global Switch has no access to any customer data, we simply build and operate high-quality real estate with the right power, cooling and physical security, so that our customers are able to focus on their core IT requirements

One thing remains certain, China flexing its new military strength in the Pacific region at a time when Australia is at its weakest.

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