05.09.2022 Author: Sofia Pale

Who Owns Solomon Islands Now?

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On August 26, 2022, news broke that the Solomon Islands had refused to allow a US Coast Guard ship to refuel in its port. In the history of the South Pacific, only New Zealand did so in 1985, when it barred a US nuclear-powered naval vessel from visiting its port. In 1987, Wellington declared the country a nuclear-free zone and imposed a formal and continuing ban on US nuclear-powered ships calling at New Zealand ports. Unlike Wellington, Honiara did not explain its refusal in any way, preferring to remain completely silent.

Solomon Islands is the third largest island state after Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It has a population of almost 700 thousand people and is located in the Oceania region in the South Pacific, 2,000 km north-east of the coast of Australia. Before 1978 the Solomon Islands was a British colony, and from 2003 to 2013 the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), led by Australia and involving 14 other Oceania countries, was based in the state. On April 22, 2022, Honiara signed a framework agreement on security cooperation with the PRC, to a mild shock of both the US and Australia who had traditionally seen themselves as the security guarantors of the island state.

Ties between Honiara and Beijing date back to the 1990s, when Chinese businessmen began to dominate the logging industry in the Solomon Islands, significantly influencing the local administrative and political structure. Corruption has become so great that almost the entire economy went underground. Civil war would have been imminent had it not been for the RAMSI regional mission formed by Australia, mentioned above, whose successful 10 years of activity made Canberra feel that the Solomon Islands would never again be out of its grasp.

The US, for its part, believed that Solomon Islands’ recognition of Taiwan’s independence would also be long-lasting. However, in 2019, the Solomon Islands terminated diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China, at the same time joining China’s Belt and Road trade and economic initiative. The US attempted to cause a rift in the Solomon Islands government through good old-fashioned “checkbook diplomacy,” but the attempt ended up in riots in 2021 and pogroms of Chinese neighborhoods in the capital Honiara. The central government managed to persevere despite the vote of no confidence, and defended its foreign policy course, aiming for even greater rapprochement with China.

Neither Australian nor allied US diplomacy could prevent Honiara and Beijing from concluding the aforementioned framework agreement on security cooperation in April 2022, under which Solomon Islands authorities can now request assistance from China’s police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces. Under the same agreement, China could hypothetically place its military base in the Solomon Islands. Despite assurances to the contrary, there are suspicions that the port facilities currently built in the Solomon Islands by the Chinese already feature elements of a future military base that could house Chinese military forces. Such a move by Beijing, if taken, seems more than justified, as the pogroms of Chinese quarters in 2006 and 2021 showed that Chinese businesses require serious protection in that island state. For its part, China is willing to invest heavily in the Solomon Islands, but this requires political stability, which could be guaranteed by a Chinese military presence in this very poor country – just as it did under the Australia-led RAMSI.

Consequently, prohibiting a US ship from calling at a Solomon Islands port for refueling does not seem so illogical: Honiara now has behind its back a powerful backbone in China, which with its soft power directs the political course of the island country. The fact is that US diplomacy has recently chosen to call US ships into the ports of the Solomon Islands to ensure “more engagement” in the life of that state. This is being done as part of the Partnership in Blue Pacific, established on June 24, 2022 by the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, which is intended to be a pro-Western alternative to China’s BRI. The complexity of its implementation is that the Chinese project has long gone beyond just financial and infrastructure projects. The Belt and Road is now also an educational and cultural initiative, enabling various activities – lectures, museum exhibitions, etc. – to be held between the participants in this historically unique project. As for the Partnership in Blue Pacific, it is unlikely that its spiritual component, which is very important for developing countries in Oceania, can resonate in the hearts of Oceanians, who have a fine sense of the line between the dry political pragmatism of pro-Western states and the Chinese approach, which includes a slightly more subtle psychological component inherent in the Asian mentality, perceived by Oceanians as being closer in spirit.

The US ship banned from the ports of the Solomon Islands sailed to the still US-friendly Papua New Guinea to refuel and replenish supplies, and the US Department of State is still waiting for an explanation from Honiara, which is so obvious it is unlikely to be voiced.

Once upon a time, during World War II, the US and Solomon Islands were allies in the anti-Japanese coalition, sacrificing their lives together in the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the greatest battles in the Pacific theater of operations for half a year. But relations between the two states gradually faded, until the closure of the US embassy in Honiara in 1993. However, the reopening of the US embassy was promised during an official visit to the Solomon Islands in early August 2022 by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on a tour of Oceania. In Honiara, Sherman led an inter-agency delegation to attend the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal. The events were organized by Solomon Islands and Japan to commemorate the fallen in the hard bloody battles. But as you can see, the visit did not have a significant impact on Solomon Islands’ foreign policy course aimed at deepening cooperation with the PRC.

However, the Solomon Islands government’s decision to deny the US ship entry to its port was criticized by the local opposition, which said Honiara’s public policy under the official slogan “friends to all, enemies to none” sounds truly hypocritical in light of what happened.

This incident could be called the beginning of the end of the era of US dominance in Oceania: the events may go almost unnoticed now, but over time, gradually, step by step, the architecture of international relations in the region will give way to a new hierarchy, whose core is unlikely to be pro-Western.

Sofia Pale, PhD in History, researcher with the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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