What You Need To Know about Solomon Islands

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Yves here. I have to confess to following the Solomon Islands row on only a cursory basis. It does seem that Scotty in Marketing blew it. However, it may also be that the Solomon Islands has finally had the opportunity to do what smaller countries find in their interest to do: play the big powers off against each other.

By Rashmee Roshan Lall, who writes on international affairs. She has lived and worked in eight countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, Haiti and Tunisia, has a PhD, blogs at www.rashmee.com and is on Twitter @rashmeerl. Originally published at openDemocracy

A new world order is coming into being in Oceania, it seems, with Solomon Islands as the epicentre of geopolitical competition between China and the US.

This nation of almost 1,000 islands (of which only 147 are inhabited) and 650,000 people, in the South Pacific, hasn’t exactly been a global player since it gained independence from Britain in the 1970s. It’s “one of the poorest countries in the region with a low level of human development”,according to the United Nations. So why the international political squall?

The reason is that China has just signed a new security agreement with Solomon Islands, which has caused much spluttering in the US, Australia and New Zealand. Under the terms of the deal, China’s navy will now be able to dock vessels roughly 1,250 miles north-east of Australia, in a region that Australia’s home affairs minister recently described as “our backyard”.

And Chinese police, rather than Australian police, will now train Solomon Islands’ security forces. It’s a sign that Canberra’s traditional influence in the South Pacific is waning – and the blowback remains intense.

A senior US official in the Pacific refused to rule out military action against Solomon Islands if it allows China to establish a military base there. And Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, declared that his people should “prepare for war” to counter China’s actions in the region.

Short of actual war, there has been a verbal fusillade. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison warned that a Chinese base would be a “red line”. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has accused Western powers of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the pact.

In the Solomon Islands parliament, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare denounced “those who brand us as backyard.” That’s a place, he said, “where rubbish is collected and burnt […] where we relieved ourselves.” Instead, said Sogavare, Solomon Islands demands respect “as a sovereign impartial nation with one equal vote in the United Nations”.

Devastating Legacy

“There’s not that much money to be made in Solomons, with the exception of a few mines, but they’re not actually that significant,” University of Queensland professor Shahar Hameiri told openDemocracy. “Australia has spent way more money in Solomons [since independence] than you’d ever extract out of it. Historically, it has been a very dependent country.”

Hameiri should know. He studied Solomons for his doctoral thesis on state-building and the distribution and exercise of power between states. But other than academics with expertise in the Pacific region, knowledge of Solomons Islands is severely limited.

To the wider world, it is a distant signpost of historical conflict, as the site of some of the fiercest battles between US and Japanese troops in the Second World War. The Battle of Guadacanal, on an island west of Honiara, the country’s capital, proved decisive for the Allied forces.

But it’s not all in the past: the devastating legacy of war continues to make headlines because Solomon Islands still lives with – and dies from – thousands of unexploded bombs. As recently as last May, a Solomon Islander died from an exploding WWII artillery shell, prompting calls for the US to clean up “your mess”. It is telling that the Solomon Islands government website actually offers the chance to obtain a “WWII Scrap Metal Export Permit”.

But Solomon Islands is about more than just bombs. The unspooling story about the great power competition in the South Pacific archipelago is part of a much older one, of colonial conceit and arrogance. Here are three key points that help make sense of both Solomon Islands’ history and current political developments:

Be Colonised or Damned… or Both

Even the 1893 colonisation of Solomon Islands by Britain was a gratuitous act, in response to a request from Australia, says Hameiri. The Australians “were worried about the French, who were operating at that time in the region. So even though Britain didn’t want to do it, because Australia asked them, they did. So that’s basically it, from day one. That was the approach in Australia towards these islands.”

The British declared Solomon Islands a protectorate and ruled for 85 years. Despite gaining independence in 1978, the country retains the British monarch as head of state. Though Solomon Islands is home to more than 80 different language groups, and many more different clans, it has been shoehorned (like many other formerly colonised regions) into a single unit, as a nation state.

“Unlike countries such as Samoa and Fiji, Solomon Islands never existed as anything close to an organic nation state prior to the colonial era,” Terence Wood, research fellow at Australia’s Development Policy Centre think tank, told openDemocracy. “It was created in a process of colonial map drawing.”

He adds that “the colonial era wasn’t as ruthless in Solomons as it was in many countries, but it was neglectful: the British did not do nearly enough to help the country to develop the institutions and capacity it needed for independence.”

This remains the case today. Sections of the population complain that fundamental problems with healthcare, education and unemployment remain unaddressed and that Solomon Islands has one of the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) scores in the world.

A 2013 monograph by cultural anthropologist David W. Akin, who spent several decades living in Solomons, notes the state of the protectorate within the first half-century of British rule: “By the 1930s, and especially after World War II, Solomon Islands were a British embarrassment (when London noticed them) in that direct rule of a colony with no provision for social services or means of advancement had become anachronistic.”

Australia’s role as the United States’ deputy sheriff in the Pacific region has guided its security-centred and somewhat heavy-handed approach to Solomon Islands. During the Cold War, there were worries about the Soviet Union making friends in the South Pacific by signing fishing treaties, so the US quickly established an embassy in Solomon Islands.

After 9/11 and the Bali bombings a year later, Australia scared itself with the prospect of Solomons becoming the Pacific’s first failed state, a place “where terrorists could hide and then attack Australia,” says Hameiri. Now, it’s scared of China.

“So it’s never really about […] the people of Solomons or anything like that,” according to Hameiri. “It’s not even about extracting anything from Solomons in that kind of clichéd form of colonialism. It’s about maintaining Solomons as a place that is not a threat to Australia.”

Aid as Leverage

Australia has been the largest donor to Solomon Islands since the 1970s. It is also the Pacific’s largest aid donor, accounting for nearly half of the $22.7bn in aid spent on the region since 2009. Last year, Australia spent a record $1.3bn in development assistance in the South Pacific.

But to what end?

Many say that Solomon Islands remains a part of MIRAB, says Hameiri, in reference to the acronym coined in the early 1980s to describe the unenviable growth model for Pacific island countries: migration, remittances, aid and bureaucracy. Most people in Solomons still live on subsistence agriculture, he adds, and they are governed by so-called ‘Big Man politics’, which requires access to money.

Sometimes this money comes from unsustainable logging – timber is Solomon Islands’ largest export, and corruption means that licences are continually granted, regardless of dwindling resources.

Sometimes it comes from foreign support. Until Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance in 2019 from Taiwan to China, political patronage in the form of so-called ‘constituency development funds’ to members of parliament came from Taiwan. “Now, Chinese money is playing that role,” says Hameiri, at roughly SBD $2m (Solomon Islands dollars, roughly US $250,000) per constituency per year. Since the switch of diplomatic recognition, China has started to repair the country’s only gold mine and to build a stadium for next year’s South Pacific Games.

Those bright and shiny things are another attraction of dealing with China, say experts. Beijing does exciting, immediate, tangible stuff, which contrasts with Australia’s dull and slow (if well-meaning) health and governance programmes. In response, Australia is rethinking its aid to focus on infrastructure.

The challenge may be to end the boomerang effect – also witnessed with US aid in Afghanistan – when the greater part of developmental spending goes right back to the donor country via fees for consultants, goods and services.

Additionally, Australia’s development projects are seen as unresponsive to local priorities. “Solomons needs more help with labour mobility and climate change,” says Wood from the Development Policy Centre.

Crucially, Australia also needs to walk the talk on climate change, which is of paramount concern to Pacific islands at risk of rising sea levels. In the2018 Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe Declaration, Australia concurred that climate change was “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.” But Canberra’s carbon reduction goals seemed to indicate a low level of real commitment to the task.

That this matters is clear from prominent Solomon Islands journalist Dorothy Wickham’s social media post in the midst of the uproar over competition between China and the US: “As we talk the big things, lets [sic] also look at the small things,” she wrote. “Managing our sea resources is of serious concern for Solomon Islanders. Food security is [an] important issue for Pacific Islands as our populations grow, sea level rising. How do we look after our people? Will our children tomorrow have the same food supply as we do now?”

What’s Really Happening? The Big Picture

Prime Minister Sogavare has described the backlash to his country’s security deal with China as “very insulting”. Pointing out that the “security agreement with Australia remains in place and intact,” he said: “It is clear that we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners, and what is wrong with that? We find it very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs, or [to] have other motives in pursuing our national interests.”

Experts say it would be wrong to think Solomon Islands simply wants to switch paymasters. Nor does it seek conflict, or to be centre stage in an argument between the world’s leading powers. But it does want dignity.

According to Geoffrey White, University of Hawaii professor emeritus, unfolding events show “the inherently autonomous and pragmatic perspective of Indigenous peoples who have long histories of interacting with global powers who often have little understanding of local perspectives”.

White, whose research career began in Solomon Islands, told openDemocracy that his studies of the country’s Second World War history illustrated the gap between Western categorisation and local reality. “Allied powers eagerly represented the loyalty of Islanders in assisting with the war with Japan when, in fact, on the ground, people throughout the archipelago were making all sorts of complex decisions, with many coming to the postwar conclusion that ‘the war was not our war’. Yet every time the war is commemorated in Solomons, it is the unflinching loyalty and alignment of Islanders with Allied powers that is celebrated. […] It is only part of the story, with other parts conveniently forgotten.”

Hameiri agrees that it all boils down to respect. Solomon Islanders, he says, must think, we have lived for so long with Australians and “they’ve given us a lot of money, but they don’t actually respect us very much, and we want a little bit more autonomy.”

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  1. digi_owl

    Off late both Australia and Canada has lost their appearance of being laid back ex-
    British nations, and showed themselves of to be just as big assholes on the world stage as USA and UK.

    Anyways, i find myself thinking about the claim that the real US riling up moment during WW2 was not Pearl Harbor but the loss of the Philippines.

    1. Kouros

      Same as riling up of British and French was the invasion of Denmark and Norway and not of Poland half a year earlier.

      1. digi_owl

        Honestly, that may well have been provoked by the British.

        After all, you had the Altmark incident in February 1940. And the Royal Navy had plan to mine the Norwegian coastline.

        Frankly the British was looking for an excuse to cut of the Swedish iron ore exports to Germany. When the USSR invaded Finland, they offered to send forces to assist Finland. But they wanted to do so via Narvik port and the Kiruna rail line. Germany protested, as that would place said forces in a position to close down the ore shipments.

        And we see this in how they distributed the forces sent to assist Norway, with the professional forces being sent to Narvik while part-time recruits was sent to assist king and government.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Its not just about China and the West in the Pacific – for years there has been a tug of war between China and Taiwan, which each small island has tried to use to its advantage. But Taiwan is now down to four Pacific island allies.

    Of course, its not just the US that is a sometimes unreliable ally. The Kampuchians under Paul Pot were convinced that China was an unshakable friend, until Vietnam told them they didn’t care, and China (after getting a bloody nose in its invasion in 1979), pretended they hadn’t really made any promises. This is just how geopolitics goes, and if the Pacific Islanders have any sense they will play all powers against each other to extract all they can. But they need to know that its easy to invite a major power in to set up a Navy base, its a lot harder to ask them to leave.

    1. Jacob Hatch

      Gerald Ford was promising China lots of goodies if they’d jump on Vietnam, Pol Pot was a US client. We’re used to the American’s being unreliable, but in China’s case they got the rug pulled out from under them by Jimmy Carter, who went on to eliminate the Communist Party of Indonesia, and also a large part of it’s Chinese population, so yeah, it’s complicated.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I’d be interested if you have any sources you can cite on that claim about Gerald Ford and China. I’ve read plenty on the period and region, I can’t recall anyone ever making that claim. And Paul Pot was most certainly not a US client at the time of the invasion – it was after the Vietnamese deposed him that he received US and British support. There is no evidence that I am aware of that the US either officially or unofficially provided any aid to the KR.

        1. Jacob Hatch

          I’d have to go through a lot of paper library to pull up what I remember, but if you have the time you can research Gerald Ford and things like selling long range howitzers to China so they could hold off Russian pressure on their north borders, promises to neutralize Russia’s Pacific fleet, etc which Jimmy scotched half way through the delivery. Pol Pot and USA support goes all the way back to prior his establishment, any cursory search should pull up lots of references.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Fair enough, although that contradicts most of what I know of the period – Vietnam and China has very tense relations going back centuries, and China seems to have resented what it saw as Vietnams lack of gratitude for its aid in the war (mostly engineering manpower and small arms). China has never needed the US or anyone else to provoke bad relations with the Vietnamese – many Chinese nationalists claim parts of northern Vietnam as historically part of China. Whether the tight link between Kampuchea and China was real or was in Paul Pots head, nobody seems to know.

        2. Cat Burglar

          I recollect articles in the New Statesman around 1979-1980 outlining some use of the Pol Pot government by the US, but not the exact story.

  3. Thuto

    In other words, everything that Russia is saying about the threat of Nato on its doorstep is identical in every way with what has Scottie beside himself with moral outrage. I bet China and Solomon islands sat in a room and said “let’s you and I expose the hypocrisy of the west lol”. In a just world a “I stand with Solomon islands” fever would sweep across social media and the blogosphere, and the flag of this island nation would adorn many a twitter profile.

  4. Jacob Hatch

    New Atlas youtube channel had some coverage that the NED has been funding separatist groups in the largest population island, as well as NGOs tied to the anti-mainland Chinese riots in the capitol, which is on the island with the 2nd largest population. Funny thing is he gets nearly all his information from US government documents, probably one of those things Obama (on behalf of his sponsors) wants to shut down via his Department of Mis-information.

    Solomon Island was tested as a site for 2nd ring island anti-ship missiles by USN, done without even informing the government of what they were doing.

  5. Mike Gramig

    It’s as clear as the nose on your face that China is moving in on a poor nation whose needs have been ignored by the neoliberal west. It’s not likely that Solomon Islands will get the kind of attention they really need but nevertheless the West is dropping the ball on the poor again.

  6. The Rev Kev

    I suspect that the model in operation for the Pacific islands is to keep them poor and not very well developed. It is all about control and keeping them under surveillance. When last year the Chinese put in a bid for an undersea cable to Nauru to Guam, the US and other countries frantically shut down that happening. Only western countries are allowed to put those cables in which I suspect are all about surveillance in practice. In this under-developed state, these islands can have their resources extracted and countries like Australia can bring workers from them to pick crops here in Oz like the US has Mexicans do similar work over there. And with climate change, a lot of these islands will one day be out of sight, out of mind as the ocean rises. The worse thing that the Chinese could do is to invest in projects that make the Solomons thrive and serve as an example to other island nations what they too can have.

  7. Cat Burglar

    Direct competition with competing powers is not the only headache a hegemon has.

    Even worse is the emergence of non-aligned nations using the competition to develop themselves by starting bidding wars between the powers for influence. That’s what all those Cold War coups were designed to stop, not the spread of communism. Things have to be kept in a strictly Us vs. Them bipolar system.

    On another note — my father commanded a rifle platoon in jungle combat on Bougainville and Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Among other things, he had to censor his men’s mail to prevent any disclosure of useful information to the enemy. To his eternal regret, he had to cut out a soldier’s request to his parents for the latest hot record, “Boogieville Seranade,” by Solomon Ivy and his Orchestra.

    1. JoeC100

      For some perspective on the economy and British empire management/governance of the Solomons up to WW 2 (and how close the US came to loosing the fight on Guadalcanal) it is worth reading “Alone on the Solomons” by Martin Clemens. Quite a view into a very different world than today…

      And my father was also on Guadalcanal, and later Cape Glouchester and Peleliu. Once connected with the Marines, the intelligence provided by Clemens and his native scouts may have tipped the balance of the fight to the Marines..

    1. The Rev Kev

      About twenty years ago Oz had a neocon Prime Minister name Johnny Howard and when he returned from the US after 9/11 stated that Australia should become America’s sheriff in the Pacific. For this he was roundly mocked and laughed at but it seems that this idea stuck in his Coalition party and now they are turning it into reality. It is weird. Australia’s best future is where we are part of Asia and not the Anglo-Saxon world but one that can act as independent negotiator between all the countries in the Pacific while we build up trade relations. Now we are being used as an offensive platform for nuclear weapons which makes us a nuclear target for not only Chinese but Russian missiles as well. Our politicians suck.

      1. Synoia

        How much has the US paid to the benefit of Scotty from Marketing and his “friends”?

      2. JTMcPhee

        And Oz was Ground Zero for all those nuclear tests during the Age of Increasing Idiocy (we are nearing terminal idiocy now.)

        Do I have it right that the recent and current beneficiaries and drivers of being the US’s lap dog/sheriff are heirs of the British military folk who ran the penal colony back in the day, with both transportees and bush people as slaves? Not the kind of antecedents that are likely to lead to a better world.

  8. Susan the other

    The Solomon Islands make good sense for China. China can undermine Taiwan’s independence by replacing them in the Solomons. And they gain two tangible things they need because their eastern coasts are turning into marshes – a naval base and an enormous freeport. Plus, psychologically, the Solomons are freedom. Because the West is busy “containing” China’s access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It might be too expensive for AUKUS to patrol all the islands in the Solomons – and it might also be illegal. They’ll have to “patrol” them via satellite. The Islanders will undoubtedly benefit. It stands to reason that whatever makes the Chinese more prosperous will also make the Solomons prosperous.

  9. Revenant

    Some Solomon thoughts;

    – how many NC readers have spent any time there? We are a catholic and well travelled lot so it cannot just be me! Straw poll….

    – if you’d like to learn about life on the Solomons, I can recommend “Solomon Time”, about a west country sixth former spending time there before University. He ends up starting and running a chicken farm, to satisfy unmet local demand and try to create jobs.

    – JFK was rescued from his boat, PT109, at Gizo, which is now the name of its best bar.

    – Bougainville (locally pronounced Bo-gan-vil: amuses the Aussies with the reference to bogans!) is geographically a Solomon Island but not politically. It is part of Papua New Guinea. It has fought a long war of succession and will become an autonomous territory in 2027. For how long, who knows… B has some very valuable mining. (bauxite? Possibly Freeport McMoran is there, cannot remember). B is named after the French adventurer for whom the plant us also named.

    – the Solomons remain strategically important in naval terms. Good place to base a blue water fleet. Deep channels between the islands. If you were China thinking outside the nine dash line, the Solomons would be good tit for Mariana’s / Guam’s tat….

    – naval rivalry in SW Pacific has been minimal but Australia just bought some nuclear submarines so China has a legitimate interest in a guard post covering Eastern Australia. Arrangements with Indonesia or East Timor might cover Western Australia….

    – the US had a long gap between Ambassadors in the early 2000’s, it was not a priority territory. It has honorary consuls on the outlying islands filing reports. All unreliable in a Graham Green way.

    – unexploded munitions are a major issue. A couple of years ago, an NGO blew up its house in Honiara where they were defusing them!

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      “how many NC readers have spent any time there?”

      A generation ago you would have got a lot more positive responses than you’ll get now. Most of the tens of thousands who were there during the second act of the 20th century world war have since passed.

  10. Dave in Austin

    Ah, the Solomons, with the usual attempt to fit it into a neat, acceptable little story line. A few facts:

    The British 19th century interest in the Solomons was to stop or at least control “Blackbirding” the recruitment of illiterate contract labor to work in the profitable sugarcane plantations of northeast Australia. The Blackbirding system practiced throughout the 19th Century Pacific was somewhere between hiring a village chief to provide bodies (often his adversaries’ bodies), kidnapping, slave raiding, bride-stealing, serfdom and contract labor. The Brits wanted a “modern” system like the one that that was bringing people from India to South Africa and Fiji. We know how well that worked out. Do-gooders in Paradise

    In 1942 when the US Marines arrived there were ~8,000 people on Guadalcanal; now the number is 125,000. The place produces almost nothing and lives off foreign handouts and remittances from people working cheaply overseas. As in a lot of laid-back, relatively undynamic locations, the local store owners are foreigners drawn-in by a quick buck; think the Lebanese in Africa and Brazil, the Chinese in Indonesia and (until the “Kill all the ones with glasses” episode in the 1970s) the south Chinese in Cambodia. More locally, we have the Korean liquor store owners in Watts who have gone on to bigger and better things and the Nigerian dope dealers in NY who also are out-competing the locals.

    On Guadalcanal it was mainland Chinese. Two years ago the annoyed locals rioted and burned them out. Only one died and that was not intentional. The semi-legit government brought in outsider cops (Australians) to put down the riot/revolution. But the Australian press was asking too many questions about things like democracy. “Presto!”. Bring in the mainland Chinese; they won’t ask too many questions.

    Laid back, less hardworking, less determined locals are often “served” by non-indigenous petty-trader middle-men. The traders are also hated with an almost blind fury. Envy can be pretty dangerous, but as long as the local underclass is properly repressed, the system works fine. Until it doesn’t. Usually a war or famine is the trigger. And the revenge-seeking locals don’t exactly follow the Geneva Convention. Chinese in 1970s Cambodia and 1960s Indonesia; south Italians in 1950s Algeria; everyone white in 1960s Angola and the Belgium Congo; Jews in 1939-45 Eastern Europe. They all get it in the neck. And now the Chinese on Guadalcanal.

    Welcome to post-colonial colonialism, leavened by a bit of humor as the western liberal press tries to figure out what the correct line is when the local traders aren’t white and neither are the foreign soldiers helping suppress the outraged non-white locals who hate the non-white traders.

    1. Revenant

      This! Almost no shops in the Solomons are run by the locals. Chinese traders run them. The locals are happy subsistence farming and fishing but resent the price of beer, cigarettes etc. Why would you sit at a till in a corrugated iron shed with no aircon when you could be sitting under a tree or out in a tin boat?

      Its not clear the merchant class has any political power. The local big men have native clan allegiances behind them. I am not sure if the cash nexus has yet corroded the personal ties.

      One thing I forgot about the Solomons which sums it up: there is a gaol on Gizo, with space for one prisoner and they are given a key to go out in the day to get food because there are no facilities bit they have to sleep there overnight. :-)

  11. RobertC

    Australian Peter Leahy AC, retired as a Lieutenant General, offers five informed, responsible actions with Stay Calm and Consider 5 Steps on Solomon Islands

    ++ First, make our own use of geography.
    ++ Second, remain calm and maintain our present support and aid commitments to the Solomon Islands.
    ++ Third, focus on the Pacific Islands Forum and reenergise and properly fund the Pacific Step-up.
    ++ Fourth, review our current capabilities, force posture and basing options.
    ++ Fifth, establish operational confidence building measures in anticipation that both Australian and Chinese security and defence forces may be operating in close proximity.

  12. Jaduong

    The other problem with the Soloman’s is that they, unlike most other Pacific nations, don’t play Rugby League (PNG) or Rugby Union (Samoa, Tonga, Fiji), and the Chinese certainly don’t!

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