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How the Solomon Islands became a flashpoint for US-China rivalry

A series of recent agreements between Beijing and Honiara have raised eyebrows in Washington and Canberra.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s announcement this month of new agreements with China is further evidence of the East Asian nation tightening ties in the southwest Pacific.

But, on the ground, Sogavare’s hyperbole about his relations with the Chinese leadership is not universally shared by some in the country’s political class, nor most of the population. And, with 22 Pacific Island countries and territories spanning the vast ocean, it is crucial to see the larger picture with varying dynamics of Chinese influence occurring across the region.

During a visit to Beijing July 9-15, Sogavare signed nine new agreements about trade, technology, aviation, sports, and police cooperation, and opened the Pacific nation’s first embassy there. “I am here to renew my friendship and inform the president of how proud we are to see the fruits of our relations that is changing the face of my capital and my country,” Sogavare said. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke positively about the two nations cooperating on development.  

Meanwhile, in consultation with the Australian government, Sogavare reportedly now wants to establish a defense force for the Solomon Islands with a view to reducing its dependence on external military support. Whether this, if it happened, would involve China is, at present, unclear. 

Undoubtedly, Sogavare’s declaration that China has “no strategic interests” in the Pacific beyond development and aid has not assuaged skepticism in Canberra and Washington. One outcome of the new agreements will be even greater presence of Chinese law enforcement personnel and apparatus in the southwest Pacific nation in the wake of the headline-making bilateral security pact inked in April last year. Three years after ending its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China, the agreement signaled that the Solomon Islands could now call on Chinese police and military assistance in the event of civil unrest.

U.S. and Australian officials claimed the pact heightens the risks of a Chinese military footprint in the Solomon Islands, which is about 1,200 miles (2,000 km) from Australia’s coastline. The White House said at the time that it had “significant concerns” about the pact and that the U.S. would “respond accordingly.”

The U.S. has now rapidly scaled up its presence and engagement in the Pacific. President Biden hosted a summit to strengthen relations with the leaders of 14 Pacific Island states in Washington in September 2022. And, in January, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Honiara after a closure decades prior. The region’s capitals have been markedly more frequent destinations for senior U.S. officials over the past year; just this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Tonga, where he warned against “predatory” Chinese aid, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Papua New Guinea discussing proposals for increased security cooperation.

It is worth noting that, from an internal security perspective, the main incidents of civil disorder in the Solomon Islands in the last two decades have been demonstrations against perceived undue Chinese political and business influence in the Pacific Island state. In November 2021, for example, local protestors incensed by the government’s diplomatic recognition switch from Taiwan to China attacked Chinese business interests in Honiara. Similar demonstrations in the capital turned violent in April 2006, when islanders expressed their anger at reports of alleged Chinese interference in the national election held in that month.

The overwhelming focus of China’s relationship with the Solomon Islands, at least since the 1980s, has been the Pacific nation’s rich natural resources, especially its timber. Logging has been the crux of China’s economic and trade ties and the destination for more than 90 percent of the Solomon Islands’ timber exports. Rising local resentment of China’s influence over many years is connected to documented reports of collusion between local politicians, government officials, and foreign logging companies in practices such as irregular export tax exemptions and the deliberate under-valuing of log exports. And, equally, the procuring of local political favor with financial largesse by Chinese investors.

Solomon Islands’ opposition leader Matthew Wale said last year that “the political elite have long been perceived by their own people to be compliant to Asian business interests in the granting of logging, fishing and mining concessions that almost always deprive indigenous Solomon Islanders of a fair return for the exploitation of their resources.”

While the timber has contributed immensely to the Chinese state’s productivity and growth, corruption in the forestry sector has contributed to massive government revenue loss in the Solomon Islands over decades. This has undermined the country’s human, economic, and national development. 

Thus, Sogavare’s trumpeting of China as a partner that will change the face of the country through development is less than persuasive to most islanders. In fact, what worries local opposition politicians and some provincial leaders is that, rather than ensuring stability, the security agreement with China could result in the exact opposite. China’s political system is known for the brutal suppression of dissent and intolerance of civil liberties. That approach in the democratic Solomon Islands is more likely to spur a greater environment of fear and violence, and local backlash.

At the time of Sogavare’s embrace of diplomatic ties with China in 2019, a group of senior politicians  voiced their disagreement, stating that ties with Taiwan better aligned with the “interests of our country in terms of development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity and mutual respect.”

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General, Henry Puna has welcomed U.S. re-engagement in the Pacific. Yet the challenge will be to reach beyond pronouncements from afar, and fly-in and fly-out diplomacy. Trust and close cooperation with Pacific Islanders are still built through face-to-face interactions and local knowledge and understanding of in-country realities.

It is also important to see that China’s deeper political penetration of the Solomon Islands, under one leader over the past year, is not directly replicated in other island nations. Even while many regional leaders are adamant that they will choose their own development partners, including China, without deference to prevailing geopolitical rivalries.

Papua New Guinea, for instance, has a close economic relationship with China. But its prime minister, James Marape, astutely entered into a broad ranging 15-year defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. in May. In June, Fiji’s prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, indicated that he was reconsidering a police cooperation deal the nation signed with China in 2011, citing the difference in political systems and values. Rabuka also cancelled a planned trip to China this week. And, significantly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s aggressive drive to secure a region-wide multilateral economic, free trade and security pact with 10 Pacific Island states, during a whirlwind tour of the Pacific in May last year, failed in gaining the collective endorsement of national leaders.

Pacific Island leaders, through regional organizations, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, extol the importance of “regionalism” — collective decision-making and consensus in determining the future they want. This is key for long-standing like-minded democratic partners and powers to support a stable and peaceful trajectory across the entire region.

To this end, long-standing allies like Australia and the U.S. have been working closely in recent years to consolidate their defense presence and preparedness in the Pacific to counter China’s manoeuvring. Two years ago, the U.S. announced more regional military engagement with upgrades of its bases in Australia. And this month, its biennial multi-nation military training exercise, also held in Australia, was expanded to incorporate 13 participating countries — including France, Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations of Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga — demonstrating a strong unified coalition of forces bonded by shared democratic values.

Looking ahead, the Solomon Islands is due to hold a national election next year. A free and fair election, and transparency and integrity among the political class, will be the basic prerequisites for a safe and peaceful aftermath. Any use of foreign security support to entrench the current leadership’s grip on power would have very negative consequences.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China July 10, 2023. cnsphoto via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT./File Photo
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