Why Australia and the US care so much about China's security pact with a tiny Pacific island nation

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing on October 9, 2019.

(CNN)When China announced it had inked a security pact with a tiny Pacific island nation this week, there was little fanfare -- at least from Beijing.

As China put it, it was a mutually beneficial agreement aimed at creating peace and stability in the Solomon Islands, a country with a population less than half the size of Manhattan that was rocked by violent protests last year.
But other countries saw it differently.
    To Australia, New Zealand and the United States, it was Beijing's latest power play in an ongoing struggle for influence in the Pacific -- a move that some claim threatens the very stability of the region.
      Speculation had mounted over what would be in the agreement after an unverified leaked draft of the deal appeared online last month.
        Some were concerned the agreement could see Canberra's worst fear realized: a Chinese military base being built in the Solomon Islands, a first for China in the Pacific. Australia and the US were so worried that they sent delegations to the Pacific island, hoping to stop the agreement.
        But China announced the deal had been signed on Tuesday, before the US delegation even had a chance to touch down.
          Though details of the final agreement haven't been released, some onlookers say the agreement makes Australia less safe and threatens to further destabilize the Solomon Islands, where there's already been backlash over the government's close relationship with Beijing.
          But beyond the political and security fears, experts say the situation is a reality check for Australia and its partners that they need to adopt a different approach to China's rising influence.
          "Australia and the United States still haven't woken up to the reality of Chinese power and how we're going to deal with it," said Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, who previously worked as a senior adviser to the Australian defense minister and prime minister. "In both Canberra and Washington, they think that somehow we can make China go away, put China back in its box."

          How the pact came about

          Concerns over the pact had been swirling for weeks.
          According to a leaked draft document -- which CNN has not been able to verify -- the Solomons would have the ability to request police or military personnel from China to maintain social order or help with disaster relief.
          The agreement appeared to relate to violent protests that rocked the country's capital Honiara in November last year that were partly sparked by anger over the government's decision to cut ties with Taiwan and switch allegiance to Beijing.
          Protesters targeted parts of Honiara's Chinatown, prompting Sogavare to request help from Australia under a bilateral security treaty the two countries signed in 2017.
          Smoke rises from burnt out buildings in Honiara's Chinatown on November 26, 2021 after two days of rioting.
          From the Solomon Islands' perspective, the separate agreement with China may have appealed, as it allowed the country to diversify its security relationship and leverage political posturing in the region, said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who hails from the Solomon Islands.
          But others worry the agreement could be the first stage in a bigger plan -- to establish a permanent Chinese military presence on the islands.
          The reaction to Tuesday's announcement of a signed pact was swift.
          In a joint statement, the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand said the pact poses "serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific."
          Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted Wednesday the agreement doesn't include permission for China to establish a military base, and urged critics to respect the country's sovereign interests. "We entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests," he said.
          The Chinese national flag flies outside the Chinese Embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, April 1, 2022.
          Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stressed that the "open, transparent and inclusive" agreement doesn't "target any third party."
          But despite the reassurances, there's still little detail about what's been signed -- and onlookers say that in itself is worrying.
          "There's still a lot we don't know about what the agreement itself actually says, and also about what it will lead to," said Australian National University's White.
          Political scientist Kabutaulaka said he thought it was unlikely China would build a conventional military base in the Solomons because it would create a lot of "negative publicity" for Beijing, inside and outside the island nation.
          But experts say that doesn't mean China won't have a military presence on the island -- of some form.
          If China does have the ability to bring ships and military personnel to the Solomons as the unverified draft document laid out, then there's no real need for a physical military base, Kabutaulaka said.