Recently, concerns have arisen regarding Chinese ambitions to establish overseas military bases. These concerns hold particular validity in certain regions, such as Cambodia and Pakistan, where Chinese influence is significant, and the prospect of military facilities is a genuine cause for worry. In other cases, while we cannot rule out the possibility of Chinese base establishment entirely, it remains uncertain, as in Vanuatu and West Africa. However, upon delving into the geography and history of the Solomon Islands and the technical specifications of Chinese equipment, fears of Chinese base construction, in this case, appear baseless. This paper will first review the background of the relations between the Solomon Islands and China, the history of its civil war, and then analyze why China is highly unlikely to construct a base in the archipelagic nation.
Initially, Taiwan and the Solomon Islands maintained strong diplomatic relations. This was largely due to Taiwan providing substantial financial incentives to Solomon Islands politicians. These financial incentives allowed politicians to divert a significant portion of foreign aid funds for personal gain while still having sufficient resources to distribute among their constituents. The distribution of Taiwanese aid to regular Solomon Islanders was similar to American pork barrel spending and outright vote buying. Consequently, Taiwan enjoyed widespread popularity among the Solomon Islands population, except for the educated elite in Honiara, who did not benefit from Taipei’s financial support.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, China has been actively pursuing a strategy of isolating Taiwan diplomatically. China offered the Solomon Islands a significantly larger financial incentive than Taipei could match. Additionally, China promised to fund the same programs that Taiwan had supported. Consequently, after the re-election of Manasseh Sogavare for another term in office, he pledged to investigate the possibility of switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. However, midway through the investigation, which was staffed with individuals favorable to China, Sogavare abruptly changed the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China without waiting for the conclusions of the already biased committee. This decision sparked two riots, one of which led to the destruction of Honiara’s Chinatown, not for the first time. In addition, the violence required the intervention of Australian, Papuan, and Fijian peacekeepers from the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to quell both riots.
Now is an opportune moment to delve into the history of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands and its relevance in explaining why the Chinese would be highly unlikely to obtain permission to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands, even if they were interested. During the civil war in the Solomon Islands, the country notably lacked a legally recognized national military. The conflict primarily pitted the inhabitants of Guadalcanal against those from Malaita. During World War II, some residents had been forcibly displaced from their land to make way for a military base, leading them to seek refuge in a different part of Guadalcanal. These islanders were also never compensated.
Additionally, people from the island of Malaita came to the island of Guadalcanal due to the economic opportunities created by the base. However, the people of Guadalcanal regarded these people as invaders. After bias against the natives by the people in government, the people of Guadalcanal started to rise against the government and, through the actions of the Isatabu Freedom Movement, forced Malaitians into the city of Honiara. However, the people in government tended to side with the Malatian community, and the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force often gave arms and assistance to the people fighting on the side of the Malaitian Eagle Force. The civil war persisted until 2003 when Australian-led intervention forces entered the Solomon Islands. This intervention was crucial in establishing a fragile but generally enduring peace.
This historical context is essential for understanding the local dynamics and sensitivities in the Solomon Islands, which could significantly influence decisions regarding foreign military bases, such as those thought to be sought by China, as few, if any, governments would be willing to recreate the same circumstance that caused a civil war.
Given this historical context, it seems highly unlikely that the Chinese would be granted permission to establish a military base on Kolombangara Island, the area of their supposed interest. This island is relatively small, with a population of around 6,000 people. However, it’s crucial to consider that the Solomon Islands has a total population of 800,000 individuals. If one were to relocate the inhabitants of Kolombangara Island forcibly, it would be comparable to the United States displacing the entire population of cities like Chicago or Houston. This situation raises significant optical challenges. Evicting people from an island to build a military base would have horrible optics, especially in a country that experienced a civil war partially triggered initially by the displacement of people from an island to construct a military facility. A decision by a democratic government to do such a thing could have disastrous results in the next election or could start another riot. Additionally, technical concerns and practical constraints would further complicate using Kolombangara Island as a viable base location.
Indeed, several practical issues with Kolombangara Island make it unsuitable for establishing a PLA Navy base, regardless of historical considerations. One significant limitation is the island’s port infrastructure. First and foremost, the pier is only approximately fifty meters long before encountering very shallow water (see yellow line in Figure 1). This means that no oceangoing PLA-N ship can operate from that port (see the red line in Figure 1). Moreover, there’s just one pier at this port, which severely restricts its operational capacity. In the best-case scenario, the Chinese could only base two small naval combatants at this single pier. Expanding the port would necessitate displacing local villagers, as there is a town near the pier (see Figure 1). Consequently, the island’s port facilities are inadequate for hosting oceangoing ships, and the limited docking space available would only accommodate a maximum of two vessels. These limitations render the island ill-suited as a PLA Navy base, in addition to the historical and ethical considerations previously discussed.
Image: CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies/Google Maps
While there is an old airstrip on Gizo Island, an island right next to Kolombangara Island, suggesting the possibility of using the Solomon Islands for ground installations or missile deployments akin to some of China’s South China Sea bases, there are more technical limitations. The airstrip on the island measures approximately 1,100 meters in length. However, the lightest aircraft in China’s inventory capable of carrying substantial equipment for a base and covering the necessary distance to reach the Solomon Islands, the Y-8, requires a runway length of about 1,800 meters for safe landing. Extending the runway might seem like a viable solution, but it’s important to note that this airstrip is on an island with limited available space. In the case of Gizo airstrip, for instance, extending the runway would necessitate enlarging the island itself, as the airstrip already occupies nearly the entire length of the island (see Figure 2). These technical constraints further complicate, if not eliminate, the feasibility of using Kolombangara Island as a potential military base.
Image: CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies/Google Maps
Given the Solomon Islands’ small size and low population count, Chinese engineering projects expanding the port or airstrip would not work because of the potential impacts on any individual island. If the Chinese build a base on the Solomon Islands, they will likely force the Solomon Islanders out of their homes. Even if they don’t demolish villages, mass construction will destroy the only local source of income, logging. Even if the construction doesn’t take up the entire island, it would be doubtful that the Chinese would want a logging company to operate close to their military bases. As a result, logging will likely stop, forcing the island’s residents to go live elsewhere and possibly even trigger a second civil war.
The concerns regarding a potential Chinese naval base on Kolombangara Island lack historical, technical, and geographic merit. However, should China genuinely desire a naval base in Melanesia, its focus would more likely be on Vanuatu. Vanuatu already possesses a Chinese-built port capable of hosting cruise ships, which can, in turn, accommodate various types of oceangoing warships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Furthermore, Vanuatu is historically aligned with the concept of “Melanesian Socialism,” indicating a significant degree of ideological affinity between China and Vanuatu. Thus, if there are genuine concerns regarding the potential establishment of a PLAN base in the Pacific Islands, Vanuatu, rather than the Solomon Islands, should be the primary focus of such concerns.
Paul Weisko is a research fellow at the University of Haifa’s Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center. He is a specialist in East Asian maritime security.
Image Credit: Chinese Military/YouTube Screenshot.