China’s pervasive attempts at influence in the South Pacific region continue to attract attention from the Australian and United States Governments with the signing of a new policing cooperation pact with the Solomon Islands in July 2023. This partnership strengthens the ties between the countries after a security agreement was unexpectedly established between China and the Solomon Islands in 2022.
While the press inundates us with articles and analysis on China’s actions and perceived intent (because in many ways we’re still guessing at the motivations), serious think tanks have been tracking the rise of China’s approach to soft and sharp power for some time. An emerging focus for companies in the intelligence space like Fivecast, is a need to identify the information and disinformation campaigns – propaganda messaging at best, a level of soft Information Warfare at worst – surrounding China’s geo-political maneuvering.
As China takes new actions to strengthen ties in the region, our clients carefully assess the accompanying online narrative to determine what is real and what is carefully crafted disinformation hiding more nefarious intent. Online messaging and social media commentary from the local populous is a valuable resource for timely situational awareness.
To learn more about how OSINT can be leveraged to discover and assess foreign influence, request our analyst briefing:
China and the Solomon Islands
China’s overtures to the Solomon Islands are now a key focus. Nuanced but aggressive moves, previously described as “soft power” (designed to allure, attract and persuade), appear to be setting the scene for “sharp power” (which can manifest in bullying and pressure) over South Pacific nations in need of aid and not willing to bite the hand that feeds it. This was at the crux of Australia’s shock at China successfully signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. With key diplomatic personnel out of the country, the (now former) Australian Government were caught well short of an adequate response – something that played out very publicly in what media widely described as an indo-pacific foreign policy fail.
Australia and the United States are now very much on the back foot. Had the governments proactively maintained awareness of the developing situation via well-placed Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) collection, they would likely have identified China’s intentions earlier.
In response to concerns over China’s increased influence, the US and Australia have renewed their engagement in the region. In September 2022, the Biden Administration hosted several Pacific Island leaders at the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit to address regional concerns and rebuild relations. The US recently opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands to increase engagement opportunities. However, concerns over China’s influence are still present.
“This gift has strings attached, but for what? Our resources? Influence? A base?… Sooner or later, they will come and collect, and I worry that by then we’ll be so dependent on China we will not be able to extract ourselves.”
Solomon Islands Opposition MP, Peter Kenilorea Jr. – referencing the stadium being built by China for the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands
By November 2022, both China and Australia had delivered caches of weapons and vehicles to the Royal Solomon Island Police Force. Both nations describe the commitment as capacity building. However, it is framed at the government-to-government level, Australia and the United States should be actively monitoring OSINT to see how the “hearts and minds” piece is developing across the broader South Pacific region.
China’s regional influence playbook (both soft and sharp) is not new, and many of the plays in the Solomon Islands have been seen before. Take the current push to install China’s police in the country. The Policing cooperation pact appears to formalise the process that has been observed over the past few years. The process started softly with police cooperation, then police training, then police assistance. By which stage, China has police on the ground in another country. The prospect of a transition to sharp power quickly becomes real.
Chinese Influence Operations
In mid-2021, Fivecast released a case study looking at the issue of Chinese policing in South Africa. Here Chinese police assistance has built to a point where they are in the country ostensibly to ‘protect’ Chinese citizens working in South Africa, but as you can read in our case study, not everybody is seeing it this way. Interestingly, one South African news service in 2020 went so far as to declare the building of Chinese police stations in South Africa as “Fake News”, instead referring to the opening of “The So-Called “13 Chinese police stations in South Africa” Is Totally Fake News”.
How Chinese police arrived and under what soft diplomacy measures seems open to debate, but what is clear is a readily observable pattern of Chinese influence in South Africa over several years. Arguably, this pattern appears to be repeating itself in the Solomon Islands. This a pattern that Governments and Corporates alike would do well to monitor through carefully selected OSINT solutions to ensure they are on the front foot in their chosen operating environments.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE IN THE PACIFIC
The growing influence of China in the Pacific gives rise to concerns that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is seeking to displace Australia as a major security partner in the region and apprehension that, in the future, countries in the Pacific may look to China for leadership over Western countries.
Given these tensions, the strength of the diplomatic relationship between the US, Australia, and the Solomon Islands is of increasing strategic importance. Open-Source Intelligence plays a critical role in monitoring foreign influence, destabilization efforts, and sentiment surrounding operations within the Pacific. OSINT will continue to provide information on overt influence operations conducted by the PRC and valuable insights into their intentions.