Australia’s relationship with the Solomon Islands could be on thin ice following the summoning of its high commissioner by prime minister Manasseh Sogavare over a contentious media report about the nation and Chinese interest.
The PM’s tone towards Australia has become increasingly hostile and High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands Lachlan Strahan was warned that a report by ABC’s Four Corners could damage ties between the two countries.
The ABC claimed in the report that a Chinese state-owned company in Solomon Islands was negotiating to buy a forestry plantation on the island of Kolombangara with a deep-water port and airstrip.
There were suggestions that the location was suitable for a military base and was linked to the China and Solomon Islands deal signed in May this year.
The Chinese business interest has to do with hardwood found on the island.
Mr Sogavare has regularly told the media in the region and abroad that there were no such plans to have a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands.
For much of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in July, media concentrated on China rather than the Pacific with Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong repeating answers.
Following the incident in the Solomon Islands, Dr Tess Newton Cain, project lead for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute tweeted sarcastically “We gonna write loads of op-eds and shit telling everyone about the Pacific like we know stuff and it’s cool cos we don’t have to know shit like facts or how to say the names of the countries properly – we just need to say ‘strategic’ and ‘China’ a lot.”
The ABC in its article about the incident said they had editorial independence, which means federal government ministers and senior officials cannot control what the national broadcaster puts to air.
Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale has taken the opportunity to say Mr Sogavare’s action showed paranoia.
He said it was an international embarrassment and a laughing stock to think that Mr Sogavare could control ABC’s editorial independence.
“Let me remind the Prime Minister and his advisors that ABC has its own editorial independence, and even federal government ministers and senior officials do not have control over ABC. So it is totally pointless to summon the high commissioner or any of his staff over the matter,” he said.
“It is totally pointless to summon people when international media have travelled to your doorstep and requested interviews with you, but you declined.
“The best you could have done is face the media and tell your side of the story and not cry over spilt milk. Why is the Prime Minister afraid to face the media?”
The Office of the Prime Minister has responded to the outcry, labelling as baseless the allegation that a Chinese firm is going to buy the Kolombangara Forest Products Limited (KFPL) on Kolombangara Island.
The statement said the KFPL is a joint venture of the Nien family of Taiwan who hold 60 per cent of shares and the Solomon Islands Government with 40 per cent of shares.
WE GONNA WRITE LOADS OF OP-EDS AND SHIT TELLING EVERYONE ABOUT THE PACIFIC LIKE WE KNOW STUFF AND IT’S COOL COS WE DON’T HAVE TO KNOW SHIT LIKE FACTS OR HOW TO SAY THE NAMES OF THE COUNTRIES PROPERLY – WE JUST NEED TO SAY ‘STRATEGIC’ AND ‘CHINA’ A LOT pic.twitter.com/LH9Agh2Q03
— Dr Tess Newton Cain (@CainTess) August 21, 2022
“At no time (have) the shareholders’ made a decision to sell off the company to a Chinese firm. Adding to that, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has no intention to set up a naval base at Kolombangara as Angus Grigg of the Four Corners program would like to portray to his viewers,” the Prime minister said.
“It was obvious that Grigg was putting words into the mouths of the interviewees and that speaks volumes of his intention which is clearly to cause division between the governments of Australia and Solomon Islands.”
The Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare has maintained and repeatedly reaffirmed to Solomon Islanders and the Pacific region that there will be no military or naval base in Solomon Islands.
“The Four Corners program never acknowledged that assurance and instead delve into the PRC- Solomon Islands relationship with the intention to cause animosity between the Governments of PRC, Solomon Islands and Australia,” he said.
The Solomon Islands has also just signed a US$66 million loan deal with the EXIM Bank in China for the construction of communication towers throughout the island, and the contract for construction has been given to Huawei. This has always been part of EXIM Bank loan deals where the contractors have to be from China.