Author: Gordon Nanau, University of the South Pacific
A draft security agreement between Solomon Islands and China was leaked on social media on 24 March 2022, sparking anxious reactions locally and internationally. On 19 April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin announced that the agreement was already signed, which Solomon Islands Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremiah Manele confirmed via text message.
With the exception of the Federated States of Micronesia, most small Pacific island nations have not voiced opposition and are understanding of the context of the agreement. But the security deal is bothering some stakeholders and donors because of its abrupt signing following Solomon Islands’ diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019. Former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, who wants Solomon Islands to abandon the deal, asked Fiji and Papua New Guinea to bring up the issue in the Pacific Islands Forum.
International and local anti-Chinese commentators were quick to accuse Beijing of chequebook diplomacy. Others were more concerned with broader geopolitical discussions and perceived the agreement as a stepping stone toward a permanent Chinese military presence in the region. The same concerns were raised when China constructed a wharf in Luganville, Vanuatu in 2018.
But looking beyond geopolitics, the deal is significant for Solomon Islands’ development aspirations.
The security agreement can be understood in the context of domestic security challenges, including tensions, riots and general lawlessness in Honiara. Many Solomon Islands MPs emphasised during the motion of no-confidence debate that followed the November 2021 looting that they were disheartened by the inability of the country’s police force to quell the lawlessness. This was despite decades of training and support from the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands and capacity building under the Solomon Islands–Australia security treaty.
A national police force with limited capacity to protect citizens and property is a critical security issue for Solomon Islands. Looking for additional support to strengthen the police force is driving the security agreement with China — not geopolitical considerations. But whether the Chinese style of forceful policing is something that Solomon Islands wishes to emulate is an important question. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States and others are also concerned with China’s interest in this agreement.
The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ is critical in the local context. Newer regional donors understand this inclination well and tend to target areas that have long been neglected or beyond the Solomon Islands government’s ability to fund.
Donors also used local communication channels to highlight the tangible outcomes of their funding or construction. For instance, when a high level delegation from the United States visited Solomon Islands on 22 April 2022, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was at the handover ceremony of a new track and event facility funded by the Chinese government and built by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise.
Asian donors are strategic with their support, especially their infrastructure support that targets youth, women and children and is visible to a majority of the population. They realise the importance of building societies — not just state institutions — in a country where political hybridity is a reality.
In Solomon Islands, genuine relationships are at the centre of diplomacy. Traditional partners need to recognise the existence of pre-colonial forms of political community that also influence decisions and state relationships. As the Oceanic Diplomacy research project highlighted, ‘while westernisation has added new layers of political community and diplomatic practice, it has not eliminated, or even marginalised, traditional diplomatic systems and their protocols of engagement’.
China and non-traditional development partners have closely listened to the development aspirations of Pacific island nations and try to support such aspirations. They have also focused on the central role of building relationships through their development support and security arrangements. Genuine relationships, built on listening to and understanding each other’s positions and needs, are essential in Pacific diplomacy. Traditional partners could learn more about other forms of indigenous diplomacy at the local level to understand how they influence decisions at national and bilateral levels.
Australia, New Zealand and other traditional donors continue to be the allies of choice in Solomon Islands, but China is making inroads as a new partner. The onus is on traditional partners to re-strategise and focus their support where it matters and is visible. While China’s support may be unsustainable long-term, it is triggering positive local and national reactions.
Solomon Islands’ tendency to play donors against each other is a worrying trend. But development partners must learn from such postures and engage in more long-standing trusted relationships that appreciate the priorities of Solomon Islands and its people.
Gordon Nanau is Senior Lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of the South Pacific.
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