Solomon Islands, a country comprising of nine main island groups with over 1000 islands, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, have recently witnessed heated political tensions. Peaceful protests against the Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, in the capital city of Honiara, became violent on 24 November 2021. Fearing the breach of his official residence and the Parliament building, Prime Minister Sogavare requested for international assistance. Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and New Zealand sent peacekeeping forces to restore order in the country. They undertook joint patrolling with Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. Australia announced its assistance as part of the Bilateral Security Treaty[i], agreed between the two countries in 2017, which “allows Australian police, defence and associated civilian personnel to deploy rapidly to Solomon Islands if the need arises and where both countries consent”.[ii] The US Department of State issued a statement on 26 November 2021, calling for ‘rapid restoration of peace and security’ in the country.[iii]
The Central Bank of Solomon Islands (CBSI) said in a statement that, three days of riots resulted in large scale destruction of businesses and the loss to the local economy was estimated at $US28 million.[iv] The economy which was already struggling due to the Covid pandemic was further dented by the political unrest which has exacerbated the economic crisis that could result in large-scale humanitarian crisis with looming food and fuel shortage.
Reacting to the crisis, on 28 November 2021, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, observed that “China is taking all necessary measures to safeguard the safety and lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions in Solomon Islands”. The statement also highlighted that establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Solomon Islands in 2019, serves the long-term interests of Solomon Islands.[v]
Solomon Islands is a constitutional monarchy and is a member of the Commonwealth. The current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has been a controversial figure in country’s politics. He was first elected as Prime Minister in 2000 after a coup against the then government.[vi] Currently, he is serving his fourth term of office. The country has history of inter-island tensions, and unrest in future remains a possibility, as the dynamic regional geopolitical environment can trigger domestic tension. In the recent crisis, a large number of protesters were from the Malaita province, the most populous province in the country, where the provincial government has had tense relations with the central government for years.[vii] In addition to critical internal issues like poverty, unemployment, corruption, it is large scale dissatisfaction with the current government’s policies especially its pro-Beijing stance that fuelled the current crisis. The root of the current crisis goes to 2019, when soon after assuming office Prime Minister Sogavare announced switching allegiance from Taiwan, after more than three decades, to China. Kiribati and Solomon were two countries in the region which shifted their diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in the year 2019. The move was strongly criticised by Malaita premier, Daniel Suidani, as pro-China. Sogavare also paid an official visit to China in October 2019, soon after diplomatic ties between the two counties were opened. During his visit five MoU’s were signed between the two countries including an agreement on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’ investment in the country has increased substantially since 2019. It has come to light that Chinese Sam Enterprise Group had struck a deal, securing development rights for the entire Tulagi Island in Solomon and its surroundings, for 75 years initially, which can be renewed further. The island is strategically located and it had served as a deepwater harbor for Allied forces in the Pacific during II World War.[viii] However, the deal was later rejected by the Sogavare’s government, terming it ‘illegal’.
Earlier Solomon Islands was in news when Australia was prompt in replacing Chinese giant Huawei, for construction of high-speed undersea telecommunications cables to Solomon Islands, as part of Canberra’s overseas aid programme.
In the face of the protests, Prime Minister Sogavare refused to resign. He faced a no-confidence vote in the National Parliament on December 6, 2021 brought up by Opposition Leader Matthew Wale. Wale strongly criticised Prime Minister Sogavare’s stance on large scale Chinese investment in the country saying that "foreign cronies" were being allowed to strip the country's natural assets.[ix] In Parliament, Sogavare defended his ‘legitimate government’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with China and at the same time maintain ties with bilateral partners: USA, UK, Australia, Japan and New Zealand and the rest of the world. He said that “China as an economic powerhouse provides an opportunity for us to engage and address our development needs and challenges”. He accused “agents of Taiwan” for attempting to destabilise the government and ruled out any possibility of shifting diplomatic ties from China to Taiwan.[x]
On 16 December 2021, Foreign Minister of Solomon Islands Jeremiah Manele, had a telephonic conversation with the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. During the conversation Minister Wang said that the riots were caused as some “forces with ulterior motives took the chance to smear China-Solomon Islands relations and both sides need to be vigilant against a few countries' attempts to constantly interfere in other countries' domestic affairs”…”[xi]
Honiara, the capital city, remained relatively quiet after the motion was defeated in the parliament. Although for the time being, peace has been restored and Prime Minister Sogavare has successfully defended his position in office, however, the situation remains fragile as Malaitan grievances with the central government continue to remain unresolved.[xii] There have also been voices of autonomy in the Malaita, who feel largely ignored by the Centre for years.
The situation looks more sensitive as many of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) lying at the crossroads of strategically significant maritime trade routes, with large EEZs, abundance of natural resources and relatively lesser developed economies, are attracting attention from regional and extra-regional powers in recent years, with increasing salience of the Indo-Pacific. Until recently, the region was considered more of an area of US’ influence managed under the trilateral military alliance set up by Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) agreement of 1951. However, China’s recent interest in the region seems to have challenged the traditional predominance of Australia and New Zealand. Australia remains the largest aid and development partner but over the past few years, China has gradually emerged as one of the highest donors to the PIC’s, becoming the second largest after Australia. With China bolstering its economic and diplomatic footprint, both New Zealand and Australia have been vocal about their concerns of China’s strategic ambitions in the region and its ‘chequebook diplomacy’.
Therefore, the geopolitical environment in the region has been heating up with traditional regional players’ concerns about China’s economic, diplomatic and strategic advances in the region. Earlier this year, the major regional organisation Pacific Regional Forum (PIF), that brings together this heterogeneous group of countries, also faced a crisis as five Micronesian countries decided to leave the forum, over disagreement on the appointment of the new Secretary General of the PIF. Under such circumstances, domestic unrest in the Solomon Islands, further adds to the uncertainty in the region, having implications for region’s prosperity and stability.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i] Joint media statement with Prime Minster and Minister for Foreign Affairs, 25 November 2021, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/solomon-islands
ii] On 14 August 2017, Bilateral Security Treaty was signed by Australian and Solomon Islands’ Foreign Ministers. This is Australia's first bilateral security treaty in the Pacific and it replaced the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) treaty, which was agreement between Solomon Islands and fifteen contributing countries of the Pacific region, and expired upon the withdrawal of RAMSI on 30 June 2017. See:https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/solomon-islands/Pages/Bilateral-security-treaty
[iii]The United States Urges an end to Violent Demonstrations in Honiara, Press Statement, 26 November 2021, https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-urges-an-end-to-violent-demonstrations-in-honiara-solomon-islands/
[iv] Solomons faces a 'rapidly worsening' humanitarian crisis, 1 December 2021, https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/456946/solomons-faces-a-rapidly-worsening-humanitarian-crisis
[v] Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s statement on the Solomon Islands riot, 2021-11-28, http://fj.china-embassy.org/eng/sgxw/202111/t20211128_10454382.htm
[vi] Solomon Islands PM survives no-confidence vote after weeks of protest, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/06/solomon-islands-pm-survives-no-confidence-vote-after-weeks-of-protest
[viii] China Is Leasing an Entire Pacific Island. Its Residents Are Shocked, 16 October 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/16/world/australia/china-tulagi-solomon-islands-pacific.html
[ix]Pro-Beijing Solomon Islands PM survives confidence vote, blames crisis on ‘Taiwan agents’, 06 December 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20211206-pro-beijing-solomon-islands-pm-survives-confidence-vote-blames-crisis-on-taiwan-agents
[x] Solomon Islands PM survives no-confidence vote after weeks of protest, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/06/solomon-islands-pm-survives-no-confidence-vote-after-weeks-of-protest
[xi] Wang Yi Speaks with Foreign Minister of Solomon Islands Jeremiah Manele on the Phone, 2021-12-16, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202112/t20211216_10470613.html
[xii] Patricia O’Brien “The Deep Roots of the Solomon Islands’ Ongoing Political Crisis”,
December 10, 202, https://www.csis.org/analysis/deep-roots-solomon-islands-ongoing-political-crisis