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  • Writer's pictureStew Prins

Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch - by Edward Acton Cavanough

 

As a university student, I was fascinated by the politics of the South Pacific – thanks largely to the influence of the legendary University of Tasmania political science lecturer Professor Richard Herr.

 

The heady mix of beautiful islands, big personalities, rich histories and unique economic challenges of the South Pacific totally took me in. After I finished my Honours year, however, I didn’t really dig any deeper into this rich field of study, and my direct exposure to the South Pacific has been limited to a couple of short trips to the Cook Islands and Samoa.

 

So, for me, like most Australians, the politics of the Solomon Islands are something of a mystery.

 

We know the Solomons as one of our closest neighbours, but also as a place prone to ethnic tensions, and the occasional riot.  More recently, the Solomon Islands appeared on our news feeds as the site of a game of geopolitical tug-of-war between China, at one end of the rope, and Australia and the USA at the other.

 

In late 2019 the Solomon Islands government abandoned its previous diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and forged a new diplomatic relationship with China.  This decision, which became known as ‘The Switch’, was seen as a diplomatic coup for Beijing, and made Solomon Islands politics a focus of intense global interest.



 

And then, during the middle of the 2022 Australian federal election campaign, came news that the Solomon Island Prime Minister, Manassah Sogavare, was set to enter into an agreement with China on ‘law enforcement and security matters’.

 

The Australian media – and Australian politicians - reacted to the news of the pact with alarm.  Then Shadow Minister for Foreign Penny Wong, blasted the Morrison Government for failing to see the pact coming and to take action to preserve regional security.

 

“Yet again Mr Morrison has gone missing and might talk a tough game, but what we are seeing on his watch is the worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War Two,” she thundered.

 

The visceral reaction to the Solomon Island’s partnership with Beijing was indicative of the way in which Australian and the European colonial powers in the South Pacific and South East Asia have seen the region as their ‘patch’.

 

Few politicians, or journalists, however, bothered to look behind the outrage and to understand what was actually going on inside the Solomon Islands.  That is, except for Edward Cavanough – a freelance journalist, researcher and (in his day job) CEO of the McKell Institute.

 

ED GOES DEEP


Cavnough’s book Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch goes beyond the headlines, and deep into the jungle to understand why and how the Solomon Islands entered its new diplomatic romance with China.

 

He literally packs a bag and hitches a ride into the rugged, isolated poverty-stricken interior of this fascinating country to get the inside story of the Solomons and its people.

 

The book considers the historical context of colonialism, including the loathsome practice of ‘blackbirding’, and the World War 2 fighting – such as the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal – which left a legacy of death and destruction that continues to this day. Solomon Islanders still live in constant fear of treading on unexploded WW2 bombs.

 

It considers the tensions between the tribes that inhabit the 900 islands.  It looks at the political structures that have developed since the country achieved independence in 1978, and the personalities who have dominated the political scene.

 

Cavanough asks questions, and provides explanations, but doesn’t attempt to give all the answers.  Most importantly, he seeks to understand how Australia’s relationship with the Solomons Islands has seemingly gone off the rails.

 

SPIES, LIES AND CONSEQUENCES

 

As Cavanough explains, even the much-vaunted Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) – the vastly-expensive Australian-led military and diplomatic intervention that stabilised the country after rioting got out of hand in 2001 – left locals with mixed feelings.

 

Indeed, Australian overreach during the RAMSI period may have directly contributed to the current tense relations between the Australian Government and Sogavare.  Cavanough writes about an incident in 2007 when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were pursuing Sogavare’s close adviser and then-Attorney General – an Australian lawyer called Julian Moti - for alleged sexual offences in Vanuatu.

 

The AFP arrested Moti while he was travelling in Papua New Guinea, but after being released on bail Moti fled back to the Solomon Islands.

 

What proceeded over the coming weeks and months would be viewed, from Sogarave’s perspective, as a profound violation of Solomons Islands’ sovereignty.  After arriving in Solomon Islands, Moti was immediately arrested and detained by Australian RAMSI officials.  Although Moti was initially placed under Australian custody, Canberra’s requests for his extradition to Australia were denied by the Sogavare Government.  In a sensational escalation of the standoff, on 21 October Australian authorities raised Sogavare’s office, in search of material that would support the legal case against Moti.  Sogavare was out of town, attending a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, and the AFP had taken advantage of his absence to secure a search warrant from the Solomon Islands Police Force – then led by an Australian … It is hard to imagine any country accepting the raid of their leader’s office by a foreign police force. In doing so, the AFP validated many worst suspicions about Australia’s activities in his country.

 

Back in Australia, the charges against Moti were thrown out of court, and the Judge reprimanding the AFP for the way it conducted its investigation.

 

Sogavare was, at the time, into his second stint as Prime Minister, but he was not to keep the job for much longer.  The diplomatic stoush with Australia over the Moti affair fuelled disquiet about his government, and he lost a parliamentary vote of confidence that December.  Nevertheless, Sogavare remained an influential player in Solomon Islands politics, and by 2019 he was back in control again – but this as a more experienced and formidable political force.

 

It is hardly surprising that Australian governments now find Sogavare now such a tricky customer to deal with.  The Moti affair reeked of the heavy-handed approach that the Australian government took to the new government of Timor-Leste in 2004.  Fresh from achieving independence – with the support of the Australian military – the government of Timor-Leste set about negotiating access to oil and gas fields in the Greater Sunrise Basin, which lies about 150 kilometres off the coast of East Timor.

 

The Australian government played hard ball in the negotiations, and managed to get a favourable deal for itself and for a consortium of private sector companies led by Woodside. Later it emerged, however, thanks to an Australian whistle-blower known as Witness K, that the Australian government had bugged the offices of the Timor-Leste President to gain an upper hand in the negotiations.

 

Timor-Leste took Australia to the International Court of Justice over the scandal, and eventually was able to renegotiate the agreement.  But the revelation that Australia was willing to behave so unscrupulously towards a neighbour and a friend has left lasting damage to our national reputation in the region.

 

Here lies the stark difference between how we, as Australians, view ourselves, and how we are seen by the island micro-states of the South Pacific.

 

Our approach towards the national governments of the South Pacific can often swing between that of a paternalistic big brother to a belligerent schoolyard bully.  And when those governments stand up to us, we often accuse them of either naivety or ungratefulness.

 

SOGAVARE SEIZES THE DAY

 

Mind you, it would also be hubristic and simplistic to think that The Switch was merely political payback for Australia’s poor behaviour, and it would dramatically underestimate Sogavare himself.  Sogavare clearly has seen the potential benefits of playing off one great power against another.

 

The rise of China, and the desire for China to exert more influence over the Pacific region, has given the island countries newfound geopolitical leverage.  During the Cold War, the western colonial powers (particularly the USA, UK, France, Australia and New Zealand) had a strategic interest in making sure that Russia didn’t become too friendly with the former colonial territories (the policy of ‘strategic denial’).


Which brings me back to my Honours thesis, which examined examined the effectiveness of a Noumea-based international development organisation called the South Pacific Commission (or ‘SPC’, but now known as The Pacific Community). The South Pacific Commission was formed, in part, to keep the Russians out.

 

As I wrote in my honours thesis, back in 1995:

 

The maintenance of western hegemony in the region has been seen as an important component of the defence strategies of Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, South Pacific regionalism has co-existed comfortably with strategic denial policies, providing a mechanism for unifying the region within the western alliance. Organisations such as the SPC have therefore served to facilitate strategic policies by fostering South Pacific regionalism, and by denying access to the non-Western powers.

As the Cold War retreated into distant memory, however, the strategic value of the region declined, and with it went western interest, attention and development assistance.  To leaders like Sogarave, the west began taking the loyalty of the island nations for granted.

 

The rise of China, therefore, gave Sogavare saw a chance inspire some competitive tension into its diplomatic relationships. If we are uncomfortable about that, it’s probably because we are not used to treating the Solomon Islands as a grown-up country capable of making its own decisions and making its own way on the world stage.  We still view the Solomons through a colonial lens and are reluctant to acknowledge its agency as an independent sovereign state.

 

LISTENING, NOT LECTURING

 

At least, that just how I see it from the comfort of my home office in the Northern Rivers.  No-one from the Solomon Islands has ever asked me to speak on their behalf.  And for that matter, they didn’t ask Edward Cavanough either.

 

Cavanough finishes his wonderful book by reflecting on his own privilege and biases in writing about the Solomon Islands and The Switch.  He also saw his own work in the context of centuries of opportunism by people looking to use the Solomons for their ends and advantage.

 

For me, The Switch became a vehicle through which I achieved many of my journalistic ambitions, some of which had sat with me unfulfilled since childhood … I was conscious of this dynamic, and often felt guilty about it. Was I displacing local storytellers. Was this book the right thing to do?

 

But while Cavanough is not an authentic indigenous voice, he has provided those voices a platform through which they can reach us, here in our Australian cocoons.  What’s more, he has represented the voices of Solomon Islanders in a caring, empathetic and engaging way.  While he places himself in the story, he is careful to avoid making himself the story.

 

Most of all, Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch shows how we can all get a better understanding of the world around us when we stop talking and start listening.

 

As the biggest and wealthiest country in the South Pacific, Australia simply must get better at listening and understanding if we are to forge genuine partnerships with our closest regional neighbours.


You can buy a copy of Ed]s book by going to https://www.blackincbooks.com.au/books/divided-isles

 

And for more background we recommend listening to ABC’s If You’re Listening podcast titled ‘China’s play to win the heart of the Pacific’: https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/if-youre-listening/china-s-play-to-win-the-heart-of-the-pacific/103137252

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