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CWA # 808, 31 October 2022

China Reader
Solomon Islands’ China card: Three reasons why

  Devjyoti Saha

The Solomon Islands, like other Pacific Island countries, are leaning towards China instead of the West due to the increased efforts and other financial benefits. 

Solomon Islands’ China card: Three reasons why

According to global narratives, China is using its deep pockets in the Solomon Islands and establishing its hegemonic power in the country as it has done over the years with other Pacific Island Countries (PICs). But, if we perceive it from the realist point of view, Sogavare is pursuing his national interest by maximising national power from whatever sources are available. Due to the ignorance shown by the US and Australia in the region, China is their only available alternative.

Three reasons why the Solomon Islands intensified its bilateral engagements with China? 
First, the lacklustre diplomatic approach of the US and Australia towards the Solomon Islands. 
The victory of the United States in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 established their unchallenged dominance in the Pacific region and the end of the Japanese domination post-defeat. That battle demonstrated the strategic importance of a collective of  992 islands called the Solomon Islands, strategically located on a crucial sea lane of communication in the South Pacific. Over the years, the US and Australia have taken the region for granted, considering the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) as their traditional sphere of influence.

The Solomon Islands received independence from Great Britain in 1978, and since independence, the country has had diplomatic relations with the US. Even today, the US does not have an embassy in the country. Over the years, the US and its allies have used the islands’ ports as refuelling stations, and American fishing vessels have had unrestricted access to the territorial waters of the PICs under the 1987 Treaty on Fisheries. In return, the US made significant contributions to the peacekeeping forces from 1971 to 2000. Through USAID, it has supported sustainable development projects in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, etc. However, the US never took the economic engagements to a deeper level as the country failed to address the significant impediments to development, i.e. poor infrastructure and connectivity. 

Similarly, Australia has taken the PICs for granted by considering them as its traditional zone of influence but made meagre contributions to keep it so. Although Australia has maintained an embassy in Honiara, it hardly took any significant step to deepen and intensify the bilateral engagements. Historically, Australia has been the largest aid provider to the country. Although, the monetary value of that aid has undergone significant cuts since 2019, the amount reached USD 129 million, which was a steep 43 per cent cut. According to the Australian government's report on "Solomon Islands-Australia Aid Partnership 2017-20", the aid is primarily utilised for human resource development, the health sector, rural empowerment, women empowerment and governance. Surprisingly, the report explicitly mentions the existence of poor infrastructure and communication as impediments to the nation's economic growth but does not mention anything to solve the issue. The report also ignores the issue of climate change which has been an important subject in the Australia-PICs’ relations. 

Second, China fills the power vacuum.
Tables turned for the US and Australia in 2019 when Prime Minster Mannaseh Sogavare  switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China and immediately joined Xi Jinping's ambitious One Belt One Road initiative. In 2020, China opened its embassy in Honiara, signifying the importance attached by Beijing to the bilateral relations with the Solomon Islands. 

Although the relations between the two countries formalised in 2019, the economic and trade relationship was already substantial due to China’s proactive engagements with the PICs. In 2018, China became the Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner, with the trade volume reaching two billion Solomon Islands dollars. The collective trade with the PICs increased from USD 153 million in 1992 to USD 5.3 billion in 2020.

After 2019, the engagements intensified. Chinese officials visited the country regularly, promoted engagement at official and civil-society levels like the meetings between the Chinese ambassador and the congregation of 14 Solomon Islands church leaders, All-China Women's Society and women from elite sections of the Solomon Islands etc. The visit that stood out was the one by the Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in 2022, while the last and only highest state-level visit from the US was by the Secretary of State, John Kerry, in 2014.

China has adopted a holistic development approach by focusing on infrastructure and sustainable development. The most important one is the USD 66 million loan to construct 161 new mobile communications towers by the Chinese telecom firm Huawei. On the one hand, traditional partner Australia has repetitively ignored the primary concern of climate change. In contrast, China has proactively engaged with the PICs and provided vital climate change infrastructure in the form of the Climate Action Cooperation Center, the Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Cooperation Center, etc.

Intensified economic and political engagements led to the watershed moment when the Solomon Islands and China signed the Inter-Governmental Framework Agreement on Security Cooperation. The agreement would surely help China's domination in the global sea lanes of communication  by weakening the Island chain strategy .  The strategic maritime containment plan was devised during the second world war and aimed to surround the Soviet Union and China through naval bases in Western Pacific.

Third, Sogavare's political ambitions. 
Manasseh Sogavare is in his fourth term as Prime Minister. Yet, he doesn't possess the political capital to dominate the sphere of domestic politics. The clash between Honiara and Malaita islanders in 2021 shows that Sogavare's dream to become the authoritarian leader of the Solomon Islands can not be fulfilled as long as the nation relies on the US and Australia's financial and defence aid. Aid from these nations is accompanied by a baggage of democratic norms and expectations, that the recipient nation is expected to fulfil. For instance, the Solomon Islands-Australia Aid Partnership 2017-20 report repetitively lays stress upon the issues of corruption and mismanagement of the state institutions in the Solomon Islands.

While on the other hand, no such commitments are involved when a country deals with China. With a flurry of Chinese loans and investments and the new security agreement, the Solomon Islands have found a new reliable partner for defence and financial support. Steps like delaying the annual elections, iron hand control over state media and the continuous harassment of foreign media personnel reflect upon the transformed political stance of Manasseh Sogavare.  
However, China does not provide aid but concessional loans, and in the majority of cases, like Sri Lanka and Kenya, these loans keep mounting up, leading to a debt trap.

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