Debate rages on Solomon Islands-China security pact and its implications for regional security. Why did Solomon Islands turn to China?
Much has been made of the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and the potential implications for regional security, along with feelings of broken trust: “Et Tu Honiara.” Debate often centres on the Solomon Islands’ strategic position in the Indo-Pacific, its proximity to Australia, and the Chinese military taking up residence nearby. What has been given less consideration are the possible motivations within Solomon Islands itself, insights that could be drawn out with a little perspective along with wisdom from an old Indian fable.
In “The 48 Laws of Power,” Robert Greene recounts a fable as he unpacks the “twentieth law.” Greene tells the story of two groups of birds, the kites and the crows, who agree to halve everything found within the forest. One day a wounded fox is found. The crows claim its upper half, and the kites are content with the lower. The fox feigns surprise, proclaiming it had presumed the kites as the superior birds would take the richer spoils. The kites agree and fighting breaks out between the birds, as the wily fox feeds on both warring factions. The birds retreat from the battle, while the fox observes that “the weak tend to benefit from the quarrels of the mighty.”
The Solomon Islands have found themselves in a similar position to the fox. It may see opportunities for advantage, and further understanding could come from looking at actually who the nation is and it they may act as it does. The Solomon Islands is classified as one of the world’s “least developed countries” by the United Nations. It has endured a steady decline in GDP growth, from 5.88 percent in 2016 to -4.31 percent in 2020. Part of this downturn is the country’s reliance on unsustainable logging, which accounts for around 70 percent of its exports, with fishing providing another 11 percent. Less than a quarter of the population of around 700,000 are involved in paid work, with the majority relying on subsistence and cash-crop agriculture.
The Solomon Islands’ tourism industry has great potential, but it has been hampered by the pandemic, which continues within the nation and is exacerbated by an unprepared government. Climate change is another looming issue, as the majority of Solomon Islanders live within 1.5 kilometers of coastlines. Solomon Islands citizens are spread over hundreds of islands, some of which have already begun to be claimed by rising sea levels, displacing entire communities. These groups are often forced to migrate elsewhere, further congesting island-space and increasing competition for resources. In fact, more than 80 percent of Solomon Islanders live in vulnerable coastal rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture and fishing for food and income.
The Solomon Islands is facing ongoing crises, but its undiversified economy has struggled to remain resilient. While the nation has found itself in a favourable geopolitical position, the Solomon Islands has little real say in the realms of great power competition. The state seems focused on survival and now sees a chance to gain from the quarrels of the mighty, just as the fox did.
The Solomon Islands benefit greatly from its relationship with Australia. For instance, Canberra has provided initiatives improving telecommunications, clean energy, health, defence, and education. However, official development assistance (ODA) to the Solomon Islands fell 12.6 percent from $179 million in 2014-15 to $156 million in 2021-22. It has declined even more in recent times, with only $103.1 million allocated in the 2022-23 budget. Although the Defence Cooperation Program did allocate an extra $24,000 to the Islands for 2023, the small increase drew scrutiny given the November 2021 riots in the country.
During this instability, Australia provided Australian troops and police as support. Australia wasn’t alone however. Honiara accepting further policing support from China the very next month, perhaps proffered after rioters’ targetted Honiara’s Chinatown. Beijing has also provided significant development aid to the country, though Lowy Institute analysis shows China’s aid program was non-existent until Honiara ended its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. This move should be no surprise considering the government cut ties with Taiwan because it was deemed politically and economically “useless” relative to potential engagement with Beijing.
The motivations of the Solomon Islands are further complicated by significant corruption within the nation. In surveying over 6,000 people living across ten countries in the Pacific in 2021, Transparency International found that 21 percent of Solomon Islanders had paid a bribe for a public service in the last 12 months, and 25 percent had been offered a bribe in exchange for their vote in the last five years. The nation also had the highest rates within the study for public perception of corruption being a big problem in government and business at 97 percent and 90 percent, respectively. With significant levels of aid flowing into the state, questions arise as to how those funds might influence decision makers who may already be vulnerable to corruption, a further risk that can be applied to how states such as China may gain influence within the country.
That said, despite suggestions that recent cuts in aid funding to the Solomon Islands could be partly to blame for the nation signing an agreement with China, from 2009-19 Australia still provided 65 percent of the nation’s total developmental aid. This engagement dwarfed that of other major providers like New Zealand (nine percent), Japan (six percent), and Taiwan (five percent). It’s likely there is another major factor influencing the Islands’ decision to sign on with China, one that goes beyond security agreements and the chess-plays of great power competition: climate change.
Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare is reported to have noted himself that the lack of climate action by other states in the region was an underlying cause of why Solomon Islands was turning to China. Research analysing the discourse of Pacific Island leaders shows that Australia’s climate change response ‒ or lack thereof ‒ has likely elicited feelings of repulsion in the region, and a reluctance to engage with Australia. Indeed, former High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands Peter Hooton has stated that, rather than the Solomon Islands-China security pact being Australia’s greatest policy failure in the Pacific since World War II, it is Australia’s lack of action in addressing climate change that is the nation’s greatest policy failure.
In practice, it can be suggested that Australia’s perhaps uncharitable response to climate change has affected its soft power capabilities and, consequently, its ability to influence outcomes in the region. For the nations of the Pacific, policies addressing climate change are essential to survival, and when they see little action in this domain, they may reasonably assume they are on their own.
Regardless of Honiara’s future intentions, it is playing a difficult game and may find itself tied to an agreement eroding its long-term sovereignty for short-term gain. As for future developments, it could be that a copy of “The 48 Laws of Power” lies dog-eared somewhere in Solomon Islands government, with a sticky note on Law 20: “Do not commit to anyone.”
Shaun Cameron is an Australian postgraduate student in International Relations and National Security. He has a background in academic research, psychology, and teaching.
Sebastian Westley studied a Master of Political Science in Sweden, majoring in International and European Relations. He has a strong interest in European politics and has focused his research on Australia’s relations with the Pacific islands.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be re-published with attribution.