Recently, the Solomon Islands were rocked by three days of riots, arson, property destruction, and looting, leaving three dead. The violence was prompted ostensibly by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s 2019 decision to switch its diplomatic relationship from Taiwan to the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). The realignment came despite China’s belligerent behavior in the region. Highly unpopular at the time, the foreign policy shift has been a festering sore that finally has erupted in the recent deadly unrest.
When it was apparent that the violence was not coming to an end, as Sky News Australia reported, Sogavare reached out to Down Under, which provided a hundred Australian Federal Police and Australian Defense Force personnel to establish and sustain order.
Is it a surprise that the growing tensions between the United States and the PRC over the independence of Taiwan spilled over into the nearby Solomons, a small nation of nearly a thousand islands with a population of 690,598 engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing? In a New York Times account of the riots, reporter Yan Zhuang described the implications of the turmoil for the global power competition between China and America. Many of the protesters were from Malaita, the most populous island in the Solomons, “one of the least-developed provinces in the island nation,” but steadfastly against the Guadalcanal government cozying up to China.
Zhuang explained, “The United States sees the Solomon Islands, and other Pacific nations, as crucial in preventing China from asserting influence in the region.” For its part, the United States has provided direct foreign aid to Malaita, bypassing Sogavare’s central government and increasing the rift between the two islands. However, it also represents a not-subtle signal of Washington’s displeasure over the new diplomatic relationship. China’s march to secure its influence across the Pacific and worldwide is a threat Liberty Nation has reported on in the past.
However, as is often the case, the presenting symptom is not the fundamental malady. According to Associated Press reporters David Rising and Rod McGuirk, the uprising in the Guadalcanal town of Honiara concentrated on the Chinatown district. As Rising and McGuirk explained, “Violence receded Friday (Nov. 26) in the capital of the Solomon Islands, but the government showed no signs of addressing the underlying grievance that sparked two days of riots, including concerns about the country’s increasing links with China.” It’s not just the China lash up, though. There has been intense rivalry between Guadalcanal, the island nation’s capital, and Malaita for a very long time. As Jonathan Pryke, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program, explained to the Associated Press:
“Most of the drivers of the tension have been in the country for many decades and generations, and a lot of it is born out of the abject poverty of the country, the limited economic development opportunities, and the inter-ethnic and inter-island rivalry between the two most populous Islands.”
That decades-old animosity and the economic distress rampant in the Solomons provided an opening for Beijing to take advantage of the situation and cajole the Sogavare government into accepting a PRC financial security blanket. But we’ve seen this before. A helping hand from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t always bring the promised financial relief. Instead, “Critics also blamed the unrest on complaints of lack of government services and accountability, corruption and Chinese businesses giving jobs to foreigners instead of locals.”
Additionally, after the switch of diplomatic alignment in 2019, the Guadalcanal government anticipated an influx of Chinese infrastructure investment. The amount was “rumored to be in the range of $500 million,” but, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic, “none of that has yet materialized.” So, it appears, while Beijing has made promises it has not delivered on, the Biden administration is advancing direct aid to Malaita. Though upsetting to the central government, the assistance has enhanced Malaita’s reason for sticking with the United States and Taipei. Using such aid for the Solomon Islands in a targeted, judicious manner could undermine China’s influence and present a golden foreign policy opportunity.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.