Australia is sending police and troops to the Solomon Islands following mass rioting as anger erupts over increasing Chinese control of the tiny South Pacific nation.
As many as 83 Australian Federal Police officers and 43 defence force personnel are being deployed, while others have arrived, to safeguard critical infrastructure and restore order as Solomon Islanders demand the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
The plea for help from the Australian government was made by Mr. Sogavare, who invoked the return of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) by requesting assistance. Sogavare’s opposition to RAMSI was what elevated him to power. Sogavare remains a staunch critic of Australia, but the other option would mean China taking the lead in restoring peace, which would be the worst-case scenario.
Enraged islanders have targeted Chinese businesses and government buildings, ignoring curfews and overwhelming local police after several days of rioting.
The troubles have been brewing since 2019 when the Solomon Islands government cut ties with Taiwan in favour of stronger relations with Beijing. However, the nature of Chinese expansion throughout the Pacific is so prolific that most islanders are prone to anti-Chinese sentiment. Impoverished locals watch resentfully as the Chinese arrive and prosper in business. Meanwhile, in the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara, thousands of unemployed youths live in squatter camps, itching for an excuse to kick off.
In such underlying tribal structures, corruption takes on a cultural hue. If regional practices follow, of the $730 million that China paid to the Solomon Islands for dumping Taiwan, much of it will have been dispersed along political lines and to friends and family of the PM as well as close members of Sogavare’s cabinet. Almost nothing will be passed on to the people.
Islanders also resent the deals made with Chinese industry that strips the island’s resources and ferries them back to China. The local resources in the Solomon Islands are fishing, palm oil, and logging. Typically, almost no islanders benefit from foreign deals, as Chinese workers are brought in, and locals are shut out of the enterprise.
This is another factor driving the island’s people to rise up against their quisling PM — and it’s powerful.
Anti-Chinese rioting is proving common in the Solomon Islands. In 2019, following the election of the Sogavare government, rioting broke out. The causes were a lack of transparency regarding the elections, with the leader of the opposition, Matthew Wale, claiming that Asian logging money (Taiwanese and Chinese) funded Sogavare’s fourth non-consecutive term as PM (donations were made to both sides). He recently alleged that the funds received from China as filthy lucre, and which the government claims are placed in a so-called National Development Fund, are instead siphoned-off for party-political purposes.
The 2019 riots occurred two years after the departure of the Australian Federal Police, which had assisted the Royal Solomon Islands police force to maintain order on the politically volatile island from 2003–17 under the Regional Assistance Mission.
Following the 2006 elections, rioting spread from Chinatown, which was burnt down, to the squatters’ settlement and towards Henderson Airfield over three tumultuous nights.
Local critics suggest that Mr. Wales’ nationalistic rhetoric is only fomenting tensions, and they accuse him of deliberately running interference against the Sogavare government.
But the truth of his words echoes what we are experiencing with the careful balancing act of deception in regards to foreign ownership, particularly in the case of China.
In September, Mr. Wale criticised the multi-million dollar grant coming from China following the cutting of ties with Taiwan. He told RNZ, “The fact that the funds are paid by a foreign power is an egregious breach of Solomon Islands sovereignty and undermines [the] government’s ability to maintain any semblance of independence in its foreign policy.”
He went on to blast the dual-faced politics of the prime minister, whom he accuses of having his hand out for foreign money.
“It is shameful. This Prime Minister has built his reputation as a champion of sovereignty when he fought hard to resist RAMSI in its early days, but it seems he has no problem at all receiving direct foreign power funding to secure his political interests, without the slightest thought of the impact on the sovereignty he often pretends to protect. “
Nor, it would seem, in calling RAMSI back in when it all goes pear-shaped for him. The irony is rich indeed.
But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there — the fact that he called upon Australia for help is an acknowledgement of the danger in inviting the CCP to come and save his bacon while blaming major powers for the upset (meaning Australia) without conceding that his quisling politics have created a failed state is desperation. It would seem Mr. Sogavare has no intention of stepping aside once this is all under control, nor of reviewing his foreign affairs policy in light of his citizens’ anger.
Likewise, Australia is—in effect—racing to secure the very man destabilising the region, having invited China’s belt and road onto our doorstep at a time of historical Australia–China tensions.
Yet, the fact that the Solomon Islands are hovering close to a split along nationalist lines offers Australians an example of how it is done. Our very system is based upon surrendering sovereignty to a cabal of foreign interests, but Australians cannot apprehend what simple islanders do. ■