By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — The first batch of Australian Federal Police (AFP) arrived in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on November 26 to help quell rioting, after the Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare requested Australia’s help under a security treaty the country signed with Canberra in 2017.
Australian troops are back in the independent South Pacific Island state, four years after an Australian-led military mission to Solomon Islands ended its 13 year “peace-keeping” operation in the country to put down an ethnic rebellion then.
Political observers here believe that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison—who has had a running diplomatic rift with China since he called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 last year—rushed Australian troops there within hours of receiving the request for help from his Solomon Island counterpart, well before any assistance is sought from, or sent by China.
Street protest calling for the prime minister’s resignation turned into a frenzy of looting, burning and violence on November 25, where crowds almost breached parliament’s precinct and burnt a building next to the main chamber, and looted and burned properties in town mainly in the commercial centre of Chinatown.
Solomon Islands has a long history of tension between militant groups from two ethnically diverse islander groups—the people from Guadalcanal Island (where Honiara is located) and the nearby island of Malaita. It intensified between 1998 and 2002 as the Guadalcanal people increasingly resented the growing influence settlers from Malaita had on Honiara. Militants from both sides started fighting each other with Malaitas chased out from Honiara in increasing numbers. Unable to stop the violence, in 2003 Solomon Island government asked for military help from neighbours Australia and New Zealand.
Known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) saw Australia, New Zealand and 13 other Pacific countries send help to stabilise the island nation. Australia spent an estimated A$2.8 billion (USD 2 billion) on the 13-year mission, contributing 7,200 soldiers and 1,700 AFP officers to the effort.
This time it’s the same tension between the Malaita and Guadalcanal people that has boiled over into riots but rather than a pure ethnic conflict it is embroiled in geo-political developments in the region between China and western powers, with Taiwan in the boil.
At the centre of the current conflict between the Prime Minister Sogavare of the Central Government and the Provincial Premier Daniel Suidani is a foreign policy issue—even though the latter maintains it’s a governance problem at the centre and wants the Prime Minister to step down.
Solomon Islands, which has for a long time being one of the staunchest allies of Taiwan in the South Pacific changed sides in September 2019 when Sogavare established diplomatic ties with Beijing. This led to Taiwan cutting off diplomatic relations with the Solomons after 36 years. Australia’s ABC network reported at the time that China has promised $500 million of financial aid to one of the poorest countries in the region.
Suidani has been very vocal in the criticism of the Sogavare government’s move, and his provincial government has independently continued to maintain ties with Taiwan. Taipei has provided COVID-19 personal protection equipment and food aid to Malaita, and in May this year Suidani has gone for medical treatment to Taiwan.
In an interview in October, Peter Kenilorea Jr, the son of Solomon Islands’ first prime minister and an opposition MP, warned the country’s foreign policy was being “overrun” by China and that disagreements over Beijing’s influence could lead to violence.
Though people around the world think the South Pacific is in the frontline of climate change, “here in the Solomons, we are also on the frontline of the aggression from the Chinese Communist Party. The political warfare is on. The geopolitical frontline is in our tiny nation of the Solomon Islands,” he told India’s Sunday Guardian.
Honiara government believes that most of the rioters have come from Malaite and Suidani said the national government should stop ignoring his people. According to him, the main grievance of Malaitans is the government’s lack of follow-through on the Townsville Peace Agreement signed 21 years ago under Sogavare’s first government, that sought to resolve the ethnic conflict with a form of self-autonomy for both Malaita and Guadalcanal.
But Sogavare is blaming foreign powers for instigating the latest violence. “I feel sorry for my people in Malaita because they are fed with false and deliberate lies about the switch (of diplomatic relations),” he told ABC in an interview from Honiara. He dismissed the grievances expressed by Suidani insisting that the issue of relations with Taiwan and China was the sole source of the current conflict.
“That’s the only issue, and unfortunately, it is influenced and encouraged by other powers,” he said. “These very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don’t want to have ties with the People’s Republic of China.” He refused to name names, but Australia’s SBS-TV reported today that the US government has recently given $ 25 million of “aid” to the Malaite provincial government, and it is also suspected they have got millions more from Taiwan.
In an address to the nation on November 25, Sogavare said: “Destruction, looting and violence is not how we address our grievances. … I do not blame the people who are protesting and rioting, they are citizens of our country, and unfortunately, they have been used by certain politicians and individuals to further their own selfish and narrow agendas.”
Sogavare asked his people what example will he set to the children of the country if he steps own because the rioters want him to? “Are we saying to our young children and youths that whenever we are not happy with those in authority, we take the laws into our own hands? If we do this, it is a very dangerous message to our people and future generations.”
Late on November 25, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed suggestions that Australia’s rapid response to the unfolding emergency in the Solomons had anything to do with broader geopolitical factors. Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne emphasised that Australia was not becoming involved in the internal affairs of Solomon Islands, but rather helping to restore stability.
However, since 2016, the Australian government has tried to counter Beijing’s presence with the “Pacific Step-Up” program, and in 2018, Australia agreed to foot the bill for a new, high-speed internet cable between Australia and Solomon Islands over concerns that China’s Huawei may do it otherwise
After the first China–Pacific Island’s foreign ministers’ conference held virtually on October 21 this year, China’s foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is willing to work on a new comprehensive strategic partnership with the region that will include a forum on fishery cooperation and development between China and Pacific Island countries, setting up a cooperation centre on poverty reduction and sustainable development, a climatic change cooperation centre in the Pacific, and to jointly uphold the international non-proliferation regime with upholding the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone as its cornerstone—a clear challenge to Australia’s nuclear submarine AUKUS agreement with the UK and US.
In response, Pacific Island ministers have expressed their willingness to take the relationship between the region and China to a new level by supporting China’s Global Development Initiative and deepen cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 November 2021]
Photo: Chinatown in Honiara, with some buildings burning. Credit: Georgina Kekea, NZ Herald