On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party has secured exclusive development rights for the entire island of Tulagi, giving it the right to develop major infrastructure projects, and even possibly use the island for building strategic assets.
The move by China is considered to be in furtherance of its aggressive foreign policy, which seeks to make Beijing a major sea power in the Pacific Ocean, where Tulagi is located.
How and why are islands leased by countries?
Territorial leases, which include leases of islands, are defined in the book ‘International Law : A Dictionary’ (Boczek, 1978) as “agreement(s), formalized in treaty form, whereby a state (lessor) leases part of its territory to another state (lessee), granting it, for a specified or non-specified period, more or less extensive rights, possibly including even the exercise of all sovereign rights, short of transfer of territorial sovereignty.”
In the 2015 book ‘Territorial Leasing in Diplomacy and International Law’, author Michael Strauss explains that states enter into territorial lease agreements when a transfer of sovereignty is considered too definitive a solution for resolving the problem at hand. As opposed to a complete transfer, leases are considered less extreme.
According to Strauss, the reasons why territorial leases are made include:
– the resolution of territorial disputes (eg. the lease of a port at Sevastopol, Ukraine, to Russia for its Black Sea naval fleet after the breakup of the Soviet Union)
–securing political objectives (the leasing of parts of China by European powers during the 19th century as opposed to annexing them, thus saving China’s prestige)
Are there any examples in India’s neighbourhood?
An important example is that of the Diego Garcia island, around 1,800 km to the south of India in the Indian Ocean, which has been leased by the United States from the United Kingdom since 1966. A permanent US naval base on the island offers Washington strategic advantages in this region.
China has also invested heavily in the Indian Ocean, such as in a special economic zone in Mauritius, where it plans to build a hub for logistics among other infrastructure projects.
India has also joined the fray and has announced plans in 2015 to develop the Agalega island in Mauritius and Assumption island in Seychelles. In 2015, India signed an MoU with Mauritius for “improvement in sea and air transportation facilities” at the Agalega island, which is understood to refer to the building of strategic assets.
What about Tulagi?
Tulagi is part of the Solomon Islands, a sovereign country consisting of 6 large islands and over 900 smaller islands to the northeast of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.
The island is considered important for its natural deepwater harbour. Because of this advantage, Tulagi during World War II served as the Pacific headquarters for the Allied forces.
After World War II, the Solomon Islands remained close to the West, but the equation began to change with the rise of China as an economic and military giant beginning in the 1980s.
The New York Times reports that the China Sam Enterprise Group, a company with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party, has been given a renewable 75-year lease by the Solomon Islands. The provisions of the agreement explicitly include the building of an airport, a fishery base, an oil and gas terminal, but some clauses could be interpreted to allow for the building of strategic assets. Just before the deal, the Solomon Islands severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan– a key objective for Beijing around the world.
The move is irksome for the US since it sees islands in the Pacific Ocean as important in protecting critical sea routes.