“The plum pudding in danger” is one of (vintage cartoonist) James Gillray’s most famous works. It shows former British prime minister William Pitt sitting opposite Napoleon Bonaparte both carving up chunks of the world for their dinner.
It’s an analogy that has been copied again and again in modern cartooning, the tussle between states and empires, characters and criminals. Cameron vs Sarkozy on Libya, May and Juncker on Europe, Macron vs Johnson on vaccine supplies etc. Struggles for land, power and influence is an age-old problem that is and alive and kicking today.
While all eyes are on glued on Russia and its brutal and brazen territorial land grab in Ukraine, more subtle power expansion efforts by other superpowers continue in the background.
This week, Australia was feeling the threatening chill of an unexpected new neighbour when it was announced the Solomon islands had made a controversial new security pact with China.
A leaked draft of the arrangement showed Chinese naval vessels would have the ability to visit the Solomon Islands for “logistical replenishment” as well as “stopover and transition” support. China would also, if requested, provide police or military personnel to the islands for disaster assistance or to maintain social order.
The Solomons’ Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, told his parliament there was “no intention… of pitching into any geopolitical power struggle”, stressing that his country would not pick sides and warning that he found it “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage [their] sovereign affairs”.
But Australia and New Zealand are concerned the move, and more militarisation, could undermine the stability and security of the region. Their respective foreign ministers are seeking support from nearby countries including Fiji and Papua New Guinea to pressure the Solomons to withdraw from the arrangement.
The Solomon Islands are only 1500km off the coast of Queensland and since world war two Australia has been their largest aid donor and sole security partner. Australian former diplomat Richard Maude said the outline of the pact “gives the Chinese navy a toehold in the Pacific” and warned “that’s something that Australian defence and strategic planners are right to be very concerned about”.
Concerns about China’s ocean ambitions have pretty firm roots. The country has been making contested efforts to lay claim to new islands or reefs in the South China Sea for years and reports this week suggest it has recently completed military construction on the “big three” reefs – Mischief, Subi and Fiery – which are now home to missile arsenals, aircraft hangars and advanced radar systems.
Some efforts at building up power can be egotistical and obvious, like Kim Jong Un’s bizarre nuclear launch commercial aired last week, but sometimes the dangerous ones are much more elusive. We’d all be wise to stay alert to it and mindful of who’s eyeing up which parts of the plum pudding.