Civil chaos in the Solomon Islands has created an intricate geopolitical problem for Scott Morrison.
Anti-government protests turned violent last week when citizens started burning down parts of Honiara. The capital city was besieged for three days after residents from Malaita (the most populous island) made their way to Guadalcanal (the largest island housing the capital) to air their extensive grievances.
A thousand peaceful protesters soon turned into a riot.
Government buildings were attacked before the mob armed itself and moved through the streets, leaving a trail of devastation which reduced whole city blocks to rubble. Tragically, three people were found inside the charred remains of Honiara’s Chinatown district which bore the brunt of the assault.
International peacekeeping units swarmed into the region to de-escalate the situation. Contingents were sent from Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and New Zealand containing observers, diplomats, police, and armed military personnel.
This was a practised response to a recurring problem.
The Solomon Islands have been a hotbed of ethnic aggression for generations, with the situation frequently collapsing to the point of outside intervention. The country’s domestic politics contain a mess of unresolved ghosts from previous regimes and visible scars. When the Solomon Islands gained their independence from the British Empire in 1978, it created a power vacuum subsequently filled by the volatile islands Honiara and Malaita. Their struggle for dominance propagates waves of instability throughout the nation.
Malaita is significantly poorer than Honiara. The average income remains appallingly low, while the bulk of the nation’s natural resources are operated by foreign corporations. Locals exist largely at the mercy of politicians. Lately, those politicians have been showing intense favouritism toward Chinese businesses at the expense of local industry. Covid exaggerated the problem into an acute crisis.
The disparity of wealth mixed with lingering tensions should be a straightforward peacekeeping situation for Australia to navigate. Providing support to the Solomon Islands is something we have done before – except these are not ordinary times for the Pacific, and this is not a normal civil uprising.
On this occasion, Scott Morrison needs to ask himself if ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘stabilising’ the situation in Honiara is the right thing to do in the long run.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has used his time in office to strengthen Chinese relationships to the detriment of the nation’s close bonds with Taiwan. China offered the struggling government $730 million as part of their global ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ scheme, provided they officially cut Taiwan off from all diplomatic relations – ending a thirty-six-year friendship.
The astonishing demand was eagerly accepted by Sogavare. It was the first of many offers, including a notorious leaked letter in late November of 2020 between Solomon Islands Finance Minister Harry Kuma and Beijing businessman Terry Wong which discussed a $151 billion loan to be repaid over 20 years. The Chinese are also building the main stadium and various expensive facilities in the Solomon Islands for the Pacific Games in 2023.
Enormous sums of money are not only going into the treasury. Dissenting Premier of Malaita Daniel Suidani revealed Chinese officials have been offering politicians bribes of $165,000 in exchange for voting to exclude Taiwan.
In comparison, Australia has been giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the Solomon Islands every year to no effect. Between 2018-19 taxpayers gifted the Pacific nation $187 million. Of course, Australia is not allowed to offer the kinds of dodgy loans that China has been using to trap vulnerable nations into a cycle of debt and land seizure – and nor should they.
There are horror stories from the Pacific region of what happens when a country defaults on a Chinese loan. Sri Lanka allowed the state-owned China Harbor Engineering Company to build the Hambantota deepwater port at a crucial strategic point. The loan was too large and the repayments became impossible, forcing Sri Lanka to hand over the entire port to China for a 99-year lease with 15,000 acres of surrounding land thrown in.
Debt-trapping is a win-win situation for China. In this case, if the Solomon Islands cannot pay their debt, China takes assets and land as payment. If they do pay their debt, Taiwan has one less friend to call upon in the event of a hot war.
This is not about buying the Solomon Islands on the cheap. China is purchasing Taiwan via a series of deposits. Beijing is hoping that if it can isolate Taiwan from its strategic partners, no one will come to its aid when the military roll in. Japan cannot be bought, but Australia remains a glaring question mark. A Labor government, similar to the Ardern disaster in New Zealand, might turn a blind eye to the Pacific if China throws enough cashed-up Aldi bags at the right people.
The people of Malaita won’t be bribed. They watched Chinese money pouring into the capital while their island stayed poor and cut off from Taiwan’s trade. When desperation became fury, Sogavare offered to retire to prevent a major rebellion, but the resentment and betrayal had festered for too long.
Malaita held an independence referendum, attempting to break away from Sogavare’s influence. The victorious result remains unacknowledged by the government.
Chinatown’s destruction and the torching of Chinese businesses in the capital was a direct result of the anger Malaita felt toward the interference of China’s communist government. Like so many other regimes around the world, the Solomon Islands has incited these terrible events through years of dodgy deals, political greed, and naive geopolitics.
What we are seeing play out now is an uprising against China and its pervasive presence inside sovereign governments. If Australia and its allies help Sogavare’s government restore peace, what they are actually doing is cementing China’s hold on the Solomon Islands at the expense of Taiwan.
Is this really a peacekeeping action in the long run – or are we setting the stage for something much worse?
‘We sincerely regret and strongly condemn the [Solomon Islands] government’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China,’ said Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
Taiwan is right to be worried. The Pacific is now an assortment of Chinese deepwater harbours, airstrips, and atolls laden with illegally built missile bases. Google satellite images reveal the bizarre network of paradise island chains besmirched by tarmac and cement. There is no indication that the Chinese government is worried about rising sea levels, with most of their remote bases built mere inches above the tide.
Daniel Suidani, the Premier of Malaita, has been resolute in his opposition to Chinese interference. Not only did Taiwan provide the Solomon Islands with Covid assistance and aid during the pandemic – Taiwan is not trying to invade their land by stealth.
Suidani is the driving force behind the uprising and if he wins, the Solomon Islands will fall back into sovereign control – which is supposed to be the point of international peacekeeping operations.
Australia is not a passive observer in this affair. Domestic unrest is a fragile thing, and often the presence of a foreign security force is enough to secure victory for the government. By choosing to send so many people over, Scott Morrison has already tipped the balance of favour toward Xi Jinping’s interests.
That is not to say Australia can stand around and do nothing. If China felt that the uprising might win, there’s every possibility that they would send in their own ‘peacekeepers’ to install the China-friendly government and then front the cameras and make the world run headlines about how wonderful they are.
Scott Morrison made it clear that Australia wouldn’t be ‘picking sides’
‘Our purpose here is to provide stability and security,’ said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. ‘We have always been there to help our Pacific neighbours when they need us.’
Maybe it’s time Australia started ‘picking winners’ in the Pacific? If we don’t play the game, China will walk in a victory. The longer the communist nation is left to its own devices, the worse the inevitable conflict will be. Australia can’t outspend China’s magical wallet, but it can support grassroots rebellions when they occur. There’s no point worrying if our action or inaction might ‘upset China’. China uses its feelings to get free stuff more often than a Millennial activist. As China keeps spreading, there will be more flashpoints like this, more uncomfortable scenes of rioting civilians, and more Western peacekeepers rushing in to help China quell local opposition to their economic invasion. A letter published by senior politicians in the Solomon Islands condemning Sogavare describes their predicament perfectly.
‘We believe the long-term interests of our country — in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity, and mutual respect — lie with Taiwan, not the PRC. […] We are aware of important lessons from many countries — including in our region — who are locked in a serious debt trap as a result of their giving in to China’s lures.’
Alexandra Marshall is an independent writer. If you would like to support her work, shout her a coffee over at Ko-Fi.
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