The Guardian • Issue #2005

Listening to the Solomon Islands: friends to all and enemies to none

The Solomon Islands (SI), with a population of 700,000, has a growing relationship with China. This is a fact and an inevitable trend. In all the recent fuss over this relationship, there is a tendency to focus on what the governments of China, Australia, and the USA think. But what do the government, the politicians, and the people of the Solomon Islands themselves think?

If we scan the main newspapers – Solomon Star, Solomon Times, Island Sun, and the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Commission (SIBC) – we find the following.

The basic economic reality that about seventy per cent of SI’s exports go to China. Next down the list is Italy, with ten per cent, whereas Australia is the destination for only 0.9 per cent. This economic foundation is the prime reason for a number of notable decisions in the last couple of years. In September 2019, SI recognised at long last the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate China. A Chinese embassy was formally established a year later. These developments took place against the backdrop of the first visit by an SI government delegation to China and signing on to the Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, there were many agreements: in foreign affairs, economic and technical cooperation, education, and in relation to agriculture, fisheries, health and people-to-people relations. The result: China has already provided AUD $6 billion in investments. Further, in April 2021 the first batch of Sinopharm vaccines was rolled out in SI, as soon as the vaccine was approved by the WHO. (In theory, this should have been Australia’s responsibility, but since Australia has been hoarding vaccines and only forty per cent of the population has received one dose and twenty per cent two doses, it has fallen to other countries – China, Japan, New Zealand, and even the USA – to fill the gap.)

In November 2021 riots broke out and targeted the economic infrastructure of Chinese enterprises in SI. Australia has a 2017 security agreement with SI, but the feeling in SI is that Australian forces deliberately took their time to arrive in November 2021 and then failed to intervene so as to allow maximum damage to the interests of Chinese enterprises. Why? The violence had been stirred up by social media propaganda from Taiwan Island, aided and abetted by Australia and the USA. This is not to say that these efforts did not have some fertile ground on which to work, since there is a notable wariness among the populace in relation to China.

The losses from the riots were massive, with lives lost, buildings destroyed, and thousands of jobs lost. They almost crippled SI’s economy. Riots have occurred on earlier occasions, in 2006 and 2019, and the SI government has observed that its local police are not sufficient for the task. After the November 2021 riots, it was also decided that the agreement with Australia has “gaps” and that further agreements were needed. A new security agreement with China was signed by the 20th April 2021.

During the lead-up to signing the new agreement, the US openly interfered with internal political processes and began working for a “regime change.” Accusations began to fly: before signing, the agreement was supposedly “leaked” by an anonymous group of public servants in SI (this turned out to be false: all that was made public were diplomatic notes, although such leaking is also a crime); China would build “military bases”; it would use its economic leverage to get what it wants; the security agreement was a “secret deal” to protect the Prime Minister; and so on. When perusing the letters to the editor, the reader comes across some that repeat these accusations, while others ask for the relevant agencies to ensure that news outlets report the facts.

So let us see what has actually been said in the Solomon Islands:

On the arrival of a US delegation in April, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare said:

“Thank you for visiting us after 80 years.” Former Prime Minister Danny Phillip observed that “the USA has totally forgotten Solomon Islands over the past 80 years after the vicious World War Two (WW2) leaving tons of munitions, hazardous chemical wastes and military hardware of various descriptions in the country.” Further, “our people have been killed in numbers annually by unexploded ordinance and other hazardous materials – a risk that still persists in most parts of Solomon Islands till today.”

On the security agreement with Australia: “the current security agreement with Australia is inadequate to deal with our hard internal threats.” Further security agreements are being negotiated with Fiji and Papua-New Guinea.

On the response to a rare visit by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja: “The resentment was quite obvious.”

On military bases: “It will not be in the interest of Solomon Islands to host any naval or military base of any country, because that will immediately make Solomon Islands a military target for other countries.”

On AUKUS, which SI heard about via news media:

“One would expect that as a member of the Pacific family, Solomon Islands and members of the Pacific should have been consulted to ensure this AUKUS treaty is transparent since it will affect the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters […] Oh, but Mr Speaker, I realise that Australia is a sovereign country which can enter into any treaty it wants to, transparently or not. Which is exactly what they did with AUKUS.”

On sovereignty: “I ask all our neighbours, friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region.”

On stability:

“We will not allow any threats from within Solomon Islands to threaten regional stability. Solomon Islands’ stability is the region’s stability […]. Let me assure the people of Solomon Islands that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open guided by our national interests. We have full understanding of the fragility of peace and our duty as a state is to protect all people, their properties and critical national infrastructure of the country.”

On economic development:

“Solomon Islands is not only a growing democracy, it is a nation of groaning young people, who account for more than fifty per cent of the population aged 40 and below. The nation needs economic development, not promises of economic development. Promises of economic development do not put food on the table every day, nor does it pay the bill. China is doing that.”

Obviously, the threats and efforts at internal interference from Australia and the USA have not been received well, especially since the Solomon Islands is serious about its sovereignty and follows the policy of “friends to all and enemies to none.”

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