Following an outbreak of violence in Solomon islands, Australia and Papua New Guinea have provided police to assist in maintaining peace in the country, while Fiji and New Zealand have also despatched peacekeeping personnel.
The violence seen in the country in recent weeks has attracted global attention, and a diverse range of explanations, almost all invoking the role of foreign policy and, specifically, the Solomons’ relations with China. As such, in trying to understand how the situation emerged and may evolve, it is worth exploring recent developments in the country’s relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
On 24 September 2021, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping made a telephone call to Manasseh Sogavare, prime minister of Solomon Islands, advising that China would continue to offer support on a range of issues. Similar calls have also since been made by Xi Jinping to leaders in Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand.
Xi’s call came two years after this Pacific nation, lying less than 2,000 kilometres off the Australian east coast, shifted recognition from Taiwan to the PRC after 36 years, following visits by two delegations of Solomon Islands MPs to China. The country’s largest province of Malaita has continued to express dissent on this shift, and the Premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, has vowed to refuse any Chinese investment in his province (assisted by a $US25 million pledge from the US). However, the national foreign policy has reflected a growing closeness with the PRC. While this trend was already discernible in 2016 with Huawei Marine being assigned submarine cable rights by Solomon Islands, it was reinforced through a major Global Times interview with Solomon Islands’ foreign minister, Jeremiah Manele, on 23 September 2021, the eve of the Xi phone call.
A month later, the two countries signed an agreement on economic and technological cooperation [Chinese-language source], including counter-epidemic and Belt and Road cooperation, poverty reduction and infrastructure development. Solomon Islands’ 2021 budget includes a $342 million ‘constituency development program’ that includes $90 million from the PRC. Earlier this year, constituency development funds from an escrow account jointly operated by the Solomon Islands Government and the PRC embassy were distributed to 39 of the country’s 50 MPs. In June, Li Zhanshu, who chairs China’s National People’s Congress, held online talks with John Patteson Oti, the Speaker of Solomon Islands’ parliament, during which it was agreed to ‘enhance exchanges and cooperation between their two legislative bodies’.
The PRC ambassador, Li Ming, has been key in developing these links, regularly meeting with the Prime Minister, Cabinet members and provincial governors [Chinese-language sources], the Foreign Policy Work Group [Chinese-language source], as well as opposition figures. Concurrently, he has been broadly promoting China and the Chinese Communist Party while stressing shared prosperity between China and the Solomons. He also travels widely to provinces, including to Malaita [Chinese-language source], and in September held a forum with the entire Guadalcanal provincial ministry [Chinese-language source].
The ambassador also accompanied Solomon Islands ministers when they attended online PRC events, including the Pacific Islands-China Political Leadership Dialogue [Chinese-language source] in May and the first China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting [Chinese-language source] in October.
The supply of PRC COVID-19 vaccines and PPE has been an ongoing element of PRC engagement with Solomon Islands over the last two years, as have diverse aid projects and promises of climate change support. At the PRC-organised Second Vice Ministers meeting on COVID-19 between China and Pacific Island countries in November 2020, Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele co-chaired the meeting.
Another key element of China’s current assistance to Solomon Islands is that directed to support the South Pacific Games, which will be held in Honiara in late 2023. China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation will build the seven major projects, including the main stadium. Footballers in the Solomons are also being linked with the Guangdong Football Association [Chinese-language source] through the Guangdong Friendship Association and the Guadalcanal-Guangdong Friendship Association.
At the same time, the PRC is encouraging sister province relations between, for example, Isabel Province and Shandong in China, Guadalcanal Province and Guangdong, and between Western Province and Fujian [Chinese-language source]. Honiara has been twinned with Jiangmen City in Guangdong, from which it has recently been gifted a garbage truck. Embassy teams visit the country’s provinces, introducing aid programs and packages and maintaining links with ethnic Chinese residents in the area. In September Isabel Province premier, Leslie Kikolo, had to refute claims that his province had agreed to host a Chinese military base. Two years ago, it was reported that the island of Tulagi had been leased to a Chinese company.
Efforts to engage with diverse areas of Solomon Islands society are also evident. The importance of religion in Solomon Islands is clearly reflected in PRC embassy activities. Last September the PRC ambassador brought together 14 Solomon Islands church leaders ‘to discuss cooperation, understanding and freedom of religion’. Senior members of the CCP United Front body, All-China Women’s Federation [Chinese-language source], also held a video dialogue in May 2021 with elite women in Solomon Islands, the first such event with women of a Pacific Island country. Students from Solomon Islands schools have been engaged in virtual dialogues with Chinese universities through the embassy, and this year 40 Solomon Islands students have been given scholarships to study at PRC universities.
Neither has the media been neglected. The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation has, with the PRC embassy’s encouragement [Chinese-language source], stepped up broadcasts of China reports and discussed collaboration with Guangdong media bodies. Media links with Chinese outlets in Guangdong are being broadly promoted.
Meanwhile, Solomon Islands remains one of Australia’s key partners in the Pacific. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade notes that ‘Australia is Solomon Islands’ main development partner, providing over $174 million of Official Development Assistance in 2019–20. Australian development cooperation focuses on supporting stability, enabling economic growth and enhancing human development’. Australia earlier also provided peacekeeping forces under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), following the country’s civil war (1998–2003). The mission concluded in 2017 at a cost of more than $700 million. The two countries have recently held the Fourth Bilateral Security Dialogue. Continuing Australian aid projects are reported on the Australian high commission’s website, and Australia and New Zealand have also recently agreed to fund the upgrading of domestic airports.
Struggles thus continue within Solomon Islands. The divisions between Malaita and the national government have exploded again, while memories of the civil war remain fresh. National elections are due in 2023, but may be deferred under the pretext of Pacific Games preparation exigencies. In the regional and international context, the strategic location of Solomon Islands (highlighted in 1942–43 by the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the turning points of the Pacific War) has seen a growing rivalry between China and the traditional partners of the islands. This contention looks set to only sharpen.