It had been my intention to support, with qualifications, the decision by the Australian Government to send a defence and police contingent to the Solomon Islands.
Fortunately I decided that before I did so I would research as much as I could on the factors behind the unrest that culminated in a fairly high level of destruction of property, principally in Honiara’s Chinatown, last week.
The Australian Government responded within 24 hours to a request from the SI Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, to provided assistance to restore law and order.
It apparently did so after consulting with the Prime Ministers of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
So far that all seemed reasonable, and offered a chance for Australia to provide regional leadership. To date the mission has been successful, with law and order quickly restored.
But the more I read in to the background to the recent lawlessness the more concerned I became. It is apparent that some of the issues at play are long standing, and to an extent remain “unfinished business” from the very costly Australian-led RAMSI mission that finally concluded in 2017.
My research took me to an excellent piece in the DevPolicy Blog written by the highly respected Solomon Islander, Transform Aqorau, headed “Solomon Islands’ slippery slide to self-implosion”.
His piece is highly uncomplimentary of Sogavare and his Government, and I will outline just a couple of the points in his critique.
Other writers have widely commented on the unpopularity of the Sogavare Government, especially in the largest province of Malaita. To an extent that unpopularity is long standing, but it has certainly increased since Sogavare, without notice, switched the SI’s diplomatic relationships from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 2018.
One hopes that DFAT, advising the Prime Minister, took into account these factors before the decision was taken to send a mission virtually immediately.
I have come to the conclusion that the decision while understandable is a “high risk” one that the Federal Government needs to review with urgency. And the main purpose of that review should be to plan an early exit strategy, with a handover to a small contingent of Pacific Island police and defence personnel to take place as soon as possible.
The Australian police and defence force contingent has already been joined by a small police contingent from PNG and a larger one from the Solomon Islands.
There are basically three reasons while I believe Australia needs an exit strategy and a regional handover as soon as possible.
Firstly, the SI Prime Minister is NO friend of Australia. He opposed the RAMSI mission led and funded (around $2 billion) by Australia. When he switched diplomatic representation from Taiwan to the PRC he did absolutely nothing to stop his Mining Minister vindictively cancelling the mining licence of an Australian company, cancelled management and workers visas, and within months handed over the licence to a PRC mining company.
The result was that up to 8,000 Australian investors lost all the funds they put into a project they believed in. The company has since been de-listed.
Some commentators have observed that Australia reacted so quickly out of concern that if we didn’t Sogavare would turn to China to provide direct assistance to deal with the lawlessness and destruction. I actually doubt that, as had he done so the internal political problems he is facing would have multiplied – the prospect of Red Army on the streets of Honiara is something the very pro-China Sogavare would have surely baulked at!
The second reason why I have real concern at our engagement is that it will not, and cannot, resolve deep seated ethnic differences and tensions that were at the heart of the causes of the original breakdown in law and order that led to the initial RAMSI mission.
The internal political issues relating to the under-development of Malaita, and low job and small business opportunities across the province generally, are matters any level of Australian intervention cannot resolve.
The third reason why I have concerns about our engagement, especially if it extends beyond a few weeks, is really outlined with great clarity in “The Diplomat” article by Transform Aqorau.
He has pointed out that though the land of the Solomon Islands is owned by the local people, they are largely bystanders while “outsiders”, principally Malaysian, Filipino and Chinese loggers and mining companies not just control the resources, but also the “political processes” involving the SI’s politicians.
The article points out that these foreign interests have more access to the SI Prime Minister and Ministers than do local people and local businesses!
Australia has to be very careful not to be seen to be propping up a corrupt and incompetent government. And it most certainly cannot afford to be seen to be supporting a government increasingly beholden to China – something I have written about, giving multiple examples, recently.
The issue of the exploitation of the nation’s resources highlighted by Aqorau is of growing concern to the people of the Solomon Islands, and not just those from Malaita.
Nothing better outlines the extent of the exploitation than is the reality that today almost 100 per cent of the nation’s pristine timber exports go to China. The Chinese stranglehold over the economy, and the influence over the government, is an issue no intervention can resolve.
My view is that the Australian Government needs to consult its regional neighbours, plan an exit strategy, and a handover to a selection mission from island disciplined forces, perhaps led by Fiji. Australia could provide funding (as ever) and perhaps a very limited supervisory role.
And when the mission ends it should refer to the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee the question of how Australia should better respond to regional law and order issues in the future. The Committee might reasonably asked whether a fear of China intervening if Australia played a critical role in our decision.
What is really important is that the good people of the Solomon Islands are not given the impression that Australia is about propping up a corrupt government rather than protecting their welfare.
That can best be achieved by an early handover to a regional security contingent with limited financial support. And by early, I would hope it can happen within days or weeks.
This article first appeared in On Line Opinion and was used with permission.