Shortcuts / 07 April 2022

The Solomon Islands and China

The Solomon Islands is poised to sign a controversial security deal that would increase China’s military presence in our region, aka within 2,000kms of Australia. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll take you through a brief history of our Pacific Island neighbour, the recent civil unrest in the Solomons, and how China fits into it all.

Take me through the basics…
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago made up of more than 1,000 islands broken up into 9 main island groups. The capital Honiara is located on the largest island, Guadalcanal. It’s situated in the southwest Pacific Ocean – think northeast of Queensland.

What about the people?
The country has a population of about 720,000 people. About 95% of the community is Melanesian, but there are also Polynesian, Micronesian, European and Chinese ethnic communities as well.

How did it become known as the Solomon Islands?
In 1568, Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana visited the region in search of gold and other minerals. He was the person who named them after the bible story about King Solomon’s fabled gold mines.

Did he find any?
He didn’t, actually… There’s a fair bit of gold in the Solomons, but that wasn’t found until many years later. 

Did any other Europeans come to visit after that?
Yes, but it was a while after De Mendana’s time. The Germans had a foothold there for a while but by 1899, the British took control.

What was life like for locals under British rule?
It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for many… Young, fit men were forced to work on plantations or sent to Australia for manual labour. And by the 1920s and 30s, the ethnic makeup of the country was changing as many Chinese came to settle.

Then came WWII… Didn’t the Solomons play a big part in that?
Someone remembers their high school history… The outbreak of World War II in the Pacific was a very important time for the Solomons. Immediately following the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbour in 1941, it advanced into the southwestern Pacific and into the Solomons with little Allied resistance.

Which was a big concern for Oz…
That’s right. The Japanese presence threatened to cut communications and shipping between Australia and the US – which could isolate and expose Australia to a Japanese invasion.

So what did the Allies do?
The Americans chose the Solomons main island of Guadalcanal as its first big counterattack against the Japanese. That was in August 1942, and over the next 6 months, there were fierce battles on land and sea.

And the Allies won?
Yep – the victory was one of the main turning points of the war and marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s presence in the southwestern Pacific.

What happened in the Solomons after the war?
A nationalist movement sprung up and the country became independent of colonial rule in 1978. But it wasn’t smooth sailing, and over the following decades, there were violent clashes between the different ethnic groups who were vying for power.

What was that about?
Essentially, the Guales – the people from the main island of Guadalcanal – resented the influence of settlers from other islands and their occupation of undeveloped land in and around the capital Honiara. The settlers – mostly from the most populous state Malaita – were drawn to the capital by comparatively greater economic opportunities. But things reached a boiling point in December 1998.

Talk me through it…
In the period in the late 1990s known as ‘the Tensions’, Guale militants began a campaign of intimidation and violence toward the settlers. It’s estimated that 200 people were killed, hundreds more were beaten and tortured, and up to 20,000 settlers were forced out of Honiara and back to Malaita. At the same time, the settlers formed their own militia unit called the Malaita Eagles Force.

How did the government deal with that?
It struggled to keep the peace between the 2 groups, and things got so bad that it turned to Australia and New Zealand for help.

Did they?
Nope – we weren’t keen on getting involved in a “domestic dispute”. And in the following years, the violence escalated in the Solomons.

How so?
A key moment was when PM Batholomew Ulufa’alu was kidnapped by the Malaitans – they felt that he wasn’t doing enough to protect them. He had to resign to secure his release, and the then opposition leader – and current PM – Manasseh Sogavare, was elevated to power.

Did the situation improve after that?
Things were slightly better until widespread civil unrest broke out again in 2002. But this time when the Solomons asked for our help, we said yes.

What did we do?
The RAMSI mission – or the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands – was created in July 2003. It was led by Oz and New Zealand and was set up through the Pacific Islands Forum. It saw soldiers, police and other civilian workers from across the Pacific come to the Solomons to build a 2,000-strong permanent force.

How many Aussies were deployed there?
Over the 10 years of the mission, 7,270 Aussie troops were deployed to the Solomons, as well as 1,700 police. Two Aussies died there, and more than 30 of our police were injured.

Why was Oz so invested in the Solomons?
Then-PM John Howard believed that a failed Solomon Islands would pose a significant risk for the whole region as it could become a safe haven for transnational criminals and terrorists. Remember, this was not long after the 9/11 terror attacks. 

Right. So how did the mission go?
There were some early victories in bringing the violence under control by arresting the most-wanted criminals and getting the guns out of the community. And over the years, commentators have said that important changes were made to the country’s economic structures and civil society.

And the cost?
Oz ended up spending $2.6 billion dollars on the mission over the decade. And the Solomons received a big injection of humanitarian aid from Australia – the most funding for a Pacific country behind Papua New Guinea.

So the Solomons must like us, right?
Not quite… PM Manasseh Sogavare was a staunch critic of RAMSI initially, arguing that it undermined the Solomons’ sovereignty. And in 2006 during his second term as PM, he expelled the Aussie High Commissioner and accused him of interfering in the nation’s domestic politics.

That doesn’t sound good…
Nope, and to add some more context to that, Australia was also trying to extradite the nation’s attorney-general Julian Moti to Oz on child abuse charges – something Sogavare pushed back against.

How did that pan out?
Well, at one point Sogavare threatened to expel the RAMSI peacekeepers and a week later they raided his office in their efforts to get evidence on Moti.

So basically, things got pretty tense?
They sure did. But in recent years, things appeared to improve. The relationship was looking on the up when Sogavare came here in 2017 and signed a security treaty with the then-PM Malcolm Turnbull. But now another security agreement the Solomons is set to sign with China has turned things upside down again.

What’s the deal?
There’s a bit to it, but internal tensions boiled over late last year when a peaceful protest that began outside the Solomons’ Parliament – mostly involving people from the Malaita province.

What happened?
Protesters were demanding the resignation of Sogavare but things soon turned ugly. Parliament buildings were set alight, Chinese businesses were ransacked and looted and there was violence on the streets of the capital.

How did Sogavare respond to that?
He called for a 36-hour lockdown of the capital and reached out to PM Morrison to trigger that security pact that had been signed in 2017. That saw Oz send army officers and police to Honiara to boost security.

So what does it have to do with China?
Well, when you look at what sparked the riots, on the surface, there was dissatisfaction over things like unemployment and the breakdown of government services. But there was another dimension – a dispute over China and Taiwan’s relationship with the nation.

You’re going to have to explain that…
Sorry, the Solomons had diplomatic ties to Taiwan. And remember China considers it to be a breakaway province. And in September 2019, Sogavare announced that he had established formal diplomatic ties with China – a deal that saw Beijing hand over $730 million worth of financial aid.

How did Taiwan respond?
It was reportedly furious and terminated its relationship with the Solomons after 36 years.

What was the response within the Solomons?
The province of Malaita wasn’t too happy with the move either and decided to go its own way with Taiwan. Its leader Daniel Suidani is an outspoken critic of Sogavare’s move to align with China. And other opposition politicians across the Solomons agreed, citing China’s poor human rights record and concerns about the debt trap all that money could bring.

Enter the latest security deal… Talk me through that.
So a couple of weeks ago, a draft government document emerged on social media with the framework that would permit Beijing to deploy forces to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands”. That document was later verified and Sogavare has confirmed that he is poised to sign it.

Right. So what does that mean?
It would see China’s police and military assisting local law enforcement agencies in the Solomons, as well as allowing Chinese warships to stop over and refuel during naval exercises. Essentially, it puts China’s military into our neighbourhood.

That’s a pretty big deal…
Indeed. Australia’s chief of joint operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, said that it “changes the calculus” if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomons. And the concern is that China will build a permanent base there – or at least have a permanent military presence in the southwest Pacific.

And will that happen?
Sogavare says he won’t allow it. He also defended his nation’s right to diversify its diplomatic relationships and said his country finds it “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.

Yikes… How has Oz responded to that?
Our top diplomat in the Solomons Lachlan Strahan said the Aussie assistance force deployed late last year will stay until the end of 2023, which is longer than expected. And in our latest federal Budget, there’s $65 million for a new High Commission in the Solomons as well as $1.85 billion committed to projects in the Pacific, including in the Solomons.

So we’re taking it pretty seriously?
That’s right. It’s a big one for our regional security and one we’ll likely be talking about for a while to come.

Squiz recommends:

Squiz Kids’ Squiz the World podcast on the Solomon Islands

Australia’s role in the Battle for Guadalcanal in WWII

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