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Manasseh Sogavare
Manasseh Sogavare in his fourth non-consecutive terms as Solomons prime minister. Only one prime minister has survived a full term since independence

JON FRAENKEL
|East Asia Forum

WELLINGTON, NZ - One could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu in the Solomon Islands.

In elections held in April 2019, Manasseh Sogavare returned as prime minister for a fourth non-consecutive term.

In the aftermath of those elections, riots broke out in the capital, Honiara, just as they did 13 years earlier. In 2006, rioters targeted Chinatown and the Pacific Casino hotel.

In 2019 they did so again, but this time the Australian-equipped and retrained Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was able to suppress the rebellion and confine disturbances to the Burns Creek area of eastern Honiara.

The major potential game-changer in 2019 was not the April election or the festering urban unrest, but the long-anticipated switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

After much lobbying from Beijing, and from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation which promised US$500 million in loans and grants, Sogavare announced the shift in September.

Plans were soon afoot to resuscitate the mothballed Guadalcanal gold mine, to build a sports stadium for the 2023 Pacific games and even to temporarily take over Taiwan’s controversial slush funds for MPs.

As elsewhere in the Pacific, some of the deals struck lacked traction. News that the conglomerate China Sam had secured a 75-year lease for the island of Tulagi, including its port facilities, led to furious backtracking after it was pointed out that the deal was unlawful. Such decisions rest with the national government, not the provincial premier.

The projected reopening of the Gold Ridge mine may also prove troublesome. That mine passed from company to company during its brief period of operation between 2010 and 2014, and was never greatly profitable.

As is typical of all major policy switches in Solomon Islands, the new Beijing orientation provoked a major split in the government. Some ministers, including 2017–19 prime minister Rick Houenipwela, were sacked for backing retention of 36-year old links with Taiwan.

Other MPs from the southern part of Malaita also opposed the new China policy. Schisms were dressed up in the Cold War language of capitalism against communism and democracy versus dictatorship.

Returning from Beijing in October, Sogavare inadvisably declared that “there is freedom of worship in the People’s Republic of China”. A rising star on the opposition benches, Peter Kenilorea Junior, responded with a rousing defence of Christian principles.

The Malaita Provincial Council released a communique that rejected “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its formal systems based on atheist ideology” and declared that no Chinese investments would be welcomed on the island of Malaita.

Honiara’s new diplomatic policy setting also raised ire overseas. US vice president Mike Pence cancelled plans to meet the Solomon Islands prime minister on the fringes of the UN general assembly.

The US ambassador to Papua New Guinea visited Honiara frantically lobbying to reverse the decision. Despite all the protests about China and Taiwan pushing around small Pacific nations, some US diplomats had no qualms about threatening to punish island states for adopting the very ‘One China’ policy that the United States itself embraced in the 1970s.

The April 2019 elections were relatively trouble-free, despite these being the first elections since the departure of the 2003–17 Australian and New Zealand-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). As is usual, controversy centred on the subsequent ‘second election’ for the prime ministerial post.

The subsequent fallout indicated yet again what a mess was made of the 2014 Political Parties Integrity Act. This was devised to strengthen parties, but at the 2014 election it had the effect of weakening them.

Many former political party members, including Sogavare, calculated that they could best avoid the new constraints of the law by running as independents.

No organic cleavages exist around which parties can spontaneously form in Solomon Islands, other than the potentially destabilising differences between provinces.

Reformists have therefore called for laws that incentivise politicians to join parties, but usually with unforeseen and damaging consequences.

Sogavare’s main rival for the prime ministerial portfolio, Matthew Wale, petitioned the high court on the grounds that Sogavare was ineligible to stand as prime minister because the 2014 political parties law required candidates to be members of a political party.

The governor-general instead followed the 1978 constitution, which states that any MP can become prime minister.

The high court backed the governor-general and rejected the petition. The 2014 Act was intended to encourage greater political stability, but the legal confusion surrounding the validity of the ‘second election’ only served to fuel the grievances of those rioters who took to the streets in eastern Honiara.

Solomon Islands enters 2020 with three years before it next goes to the polls. The economy remains weak and over-reliant on unsustainable round log exports.

It is now without the additional spending that accompanied RAMSI’s 14-year presence, but it does have the potential additional low interest commercial and concessional loans offered by China.

Some projections have assumed that additional Chinese debt will not increase economic growth, or that this will be wasted on vanity projects or slush funds, but the test of sensible debt-based infrastructure spending (whether Chinese or not) is always whether or not it raises economic growth or contributes to social welfare.

Only one prime minister has survived a full term since independence in Solomon Islands. The year ahead is likely to see further efforts to destabilise the government, organised around whatever potential grand or grubby polarising issues present themselves.

Jon Fraenkel is professor of comparative politics at Victoria University of Wellington

Comments

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Philip Fitzpatrick

You’ve probably heard the old adage which says there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The adage is alluding to the belief that nothing is free in life, including acts of kindness and charity. Any such act always creates an obligation of reciprocity.

Papua New Guineans and other Melanesian societies are very familiar with this rule. The so-called big man system is based on the concept.

Someone from another tribe offering assistance is never viewed with pleasure. Even the most innocent offer of help is suspicious. “What are they up to; what do they want,” is the usual reaction.

In western society, with its emphasis on individualism, acts of kindness and charity often lead to feelings of resentment on the part of the recipient.

In the west there is no surer way to make people dislike and even hate you than to lend them money.

Borrowing money at a personal level is demeaning and an ipso facto admission of your inferiority to the lender.

People even get upset when they are offered help by sympathetic friends or relatives. “I don’t need your charity!” is often the angry response.

These same elements also operate at the macro level, particularly in geo-political relationships.

In many instances they were one of the factors leading to decolonisation movements. Just as exploitation could engender anger among a subject people so too could overt paternalism.

While Australia thought it was a good world citizen helping to bring Papua New Guinea to nationhood many Papua New Guineans felt it was simply exercising its innate sense of superiority over what it saw as a lesser people.

In recent years this attitude is reflected in responses to interventions like RAMSI in the Solomons.

While Australia may have thought it was helping a smaller fellow nation in the South Pacific and restoring stability to the region many Solomon Islanders saw the exercise as Australia interfering where it was not wanted.

The present comments by the Solomon Island’s prime minister that Australia needs to be stood up to is consistent with this.

This may please China and fit in with its plan to isolate Taiwan but by seeking to impose its loans and help in building infrastructure it will inevitably lead to a build-up of suspicion, fear and then hatred.

This has already happened in Papua New Guinea. Chinese loans are accepted by greedy politicians but for the general populous their increasing presence in the country is a source of increasing distaste.

China might not realise it but their push into the Asia-Pacific is building up unplanned enmities, and not just from Australia and the USA.



Adam Elliott

I heard the current Solomon Islands' PM talking about the switch of allegiance from Taiwan to China. In the midst of what he said he said something like: 'I want an ally who will stand up to Australia.'

He then went on to relate that during the RAMSI period a contingent of RSIP had gone to Taiwan for training. Taiwan is not a member of the PIF and so were not RAMSI participants and that he then received a protest from Australia that RAMSI had that responsibility to train SI disciplined forces.

He said after speaking to him there was a protest made to the Taiwanese, the training was cut short and the RSIP trainees were sent back.

He said he wanted development and diplomatic partners who were not subject to that kind of protest and that China would not be.

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