The Solomon Islands and the Perils of 'Great Power Competition'
Because the relationship with China is increasingly framed in adversarial, zero-sum terms, the U.S. has taken to viewing any sign of growing Chinese influence as a potential threat to be countered.
Spencer-Churchill argues that “Invade that sovereign state!” can be a good answer—so long as the sovereign state is the Solomon Islands and the invader is the United States or Australia. His piece is devoted to arguing that these two allies should consider intervening militarily to keep the Solomon Islands from cozying up to China.
That article’s author is not the first one to suggest aggressive intervention in the Solomons in the last few months. Ever since the signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was announced in the spring, some China hawks have been promoting the idea that the agreement is just a prelude to a Chinese base and that the U.S. and Australia must not “allow” that to happen. It has simply been taken for granted in some circles that the U.S. and Australia have the right to dictate how the Solomon Islands conducts its foreign and security policies, and states in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” are free to do as they like only as long as they do what Washington and Canberra endorse.
One of the more extreme responses to the security agreement came from David Llewellyn-Smith, the former owner of The Diplomat, who said that Australia should be prepared to invade and overthrow the government to halt the agreement. Llewellyn-Smith would win the gold medal in an Olympic threat inflation event with his declaration that the agreement with China was Australia’s “Cuban missile crisis” and that a Chinese base in the Solomons would be “the effective end of our sovereignty and our democracy.” Official responses have been much more measured and they have paid lip service to the sovereignty and independence of the Solomon Islands, but there has still been an undercurrent of menace in the refusal to rule out military action.
The agitation for an anti-Chinese intervention in the Solomons is a useful reminder that this sort of unhinged militarism is what usually happens when great powers begin vying for influence with one another. The great powers treat smaller states as valuable only insofar as they can be used as pawns in their rivalries, and they are willing to trample on the rights of small nations to gain an advantage over their rivals. Because the relationship with China is increasingly framed in adversarial, zero-sum terms, the U.S. has taken to viewing any sign of growing Chinese influence as a potential threat to be countered. Once this view takes hold, it no longer matters whether there are any discernible U.S. interests at stake. Thwarting China becomes an end in itself, and “failure” to do so is then spun as “weakness.”
It is worth noting that Spencer-Churchill has to misrepresent the significance of the security agreement between Honiara and Beijing, which reportedly involves provisions for replenishment for Chinese vessels and permission to deploy Chinese security forces at the request of the local government. Spencer-Churchill spins this fairly modest agreement into proof that the Solomon Islands government has chosen to “ally with a hostile foreign power” and provide “it the opportunity for a base of operations,” but this exaggerates the closeness of the relationship and the potential threat from it. It would be deranged to call for an invasion of another country just because it hosted a Chinese base, but it is even worse to contemplate attacking them over something as minor as this security agreement.
The Solomon Islands doesn’t have and isn’t likely to have an alliance with China, but even if it did it would be ludicrous to treat this as a threat that warrants military action. “Great power competition” easily becomes an all-purpose justification for every monstrous and destructive policy imaginable, and that is why the U.S. should stop viewing its relations with states in Asia and the Pacific primarily in terms of opposing China at every turn. The U.S. and Australia would have absolutely no right to use force against the Solomon Islands. It would be criminal aggression that would once again make a mockery of Western pretensions to upholding the “rules-based” order. It would be imperialism.
It’s clear from the rest of the article that Spencer-Churchill is pushing for a policy defined purely by domination of weaker states. Incredibly, at one point he describes U.S. policy in Latin during the Cold War as “mostly one of erroneous restraint”! One wonders how many more coups and death squads he thinks the U.S. should have been supporting. If someone can look at the constant meddling and violence that the U.S. sponsored in Latin America in the Cold War and see “restraint,” I shudder to think what he will want the U.S. to do to small Asian and Pacific nations in the name of combating China.