Solomon Islands recognition of China increases risks of local conflict and challenges for donors
As China celebrates its 70th anniversary this week, events to mark this date in Solomon Islands were private, due to unresolved dissatisfaction over what is called “the switch.” It has been two weeks since the “switch” — a Cabinet decision to sever Solomon relations with Taiwan and establish bilateral ties with China. The effects of this event has been downplayed by some, but it is, in local sentiments, the equivalent of Brexit — a change to a country’s international relations with deep impacts on the nation’s identity, politics and security.
One of the norms of Solomon culture is the importance of relationships, primarily between kin groups, but also between communities or groups of people with similar ties, such as church denominations and student alumni. So, the severing of ties with Taiwan and the departure of their staff without a government farewell, after 36 years, was perceived to break cultural norms. The decision to switch to China without following a previously agreed process — notably the deliverance of the Foreign Relations Committee report and discussion in Parliament — has raised ire of prominent political leaders, provincial leaders and civil society alike, who claim deceit and broken promises.
The switch has polarised politics — between those anti-switch, some swapping allegiances just in the last few weeks, and those pro-switch. The Solomon media has become notably more biased in their reports with pro-China and pro-Taiwan articles being printed without any attempt at balance. Public servants have been told to not comment on the switch, and civil society groups have been threatened. The prime minister did not make any public comment until five days after the switch, and since then there have been scant details of any government deals, intended or already in progress, with China.
In this period of transition, several conflict risks will likely rise in the next few years. The most immediate is corruption. While on the surface it seems there is little difference between Taiwan, which gave discretionary funding to Members of Parliament (MPs), and China’s economic assistance, there is a key marker in terms of transparency. The amount of money poured into constituency development funds — partially supported by Taiwan, was known. While people complained it was rarely spent on the needs of local constituents, due to the lack of regulation and transparency around spending, there was at least a ballpark idea about funds managed by MPs. Relations with China opens the way for leaders to be directly involved in investment deals, including key decisions about land and natural resources, and little transparency around any inducements offered to them. There are reports of Chinese businesses bankrolling Members of Parliament and offers of money to provincial leaders to support the switch.
The second risk is that the switch will further conflict between provincial groupings and the national government impeding post-conflict progress towards nation-building. Given its high level of cultural diversity, with over 70 languages and distinct cultural differences from one island grouping to another, Solomon Islands politics has always been a careful game of balancing the interests and representation of different provinces. The lack of consultation or involvement of provincial based peoples and governments in the switch decision has become a source of resentment, with leaders and public forums in some of the largest provinces, Malaita and Makira, calling for independence. Guadalcanal Province, which hosts the capital of Honiara, the country’s main port, and has had a recent boom in Asian land ownership in urban and peri-urban areas, now faces potential large-scale mining and lease of lands to Chinese interests. Central Province, another province with large areas of alienated land — no longer controlled by traditional landowners — has signed a deal with China Sam Enterprise Group Co Ltd to establish an investment platform in the days following the switch.
Thanks to social media and Taiwan’s public relations, the risks of Chinese loans, including Sri Lanka’s recent loss of its port, is known locally and causing anxiety. A report by the Central Bank of Solomon Islands underlined the economic risks of excess debts and cuts to services if government leaders were to sign up to numerous Chinese projects.
While there have been dialogues and agreements about moving to federalism in Solomon Islands recently, and dating back to the time of independence, there are key issues yet to resolve. Under the law, the national government has rights to all minerals under the surface, and there is an appetite for bauxite and other minerals to fuel China’s manufacturing. So, whether provinces or the national government should hold ultimate power over development of mining and lands in a mooted future federal system will be hotly debated. Meanwhile, pressure on the provinces to “open up” to Chinese development will intensify.
There is enhanced likelihood of unrest in Honiara, which has already suffered damage of properties, and closure of the city’s education facilities and businesses during the unrest in April this year which arose for reasons I already discussed. National church, women, disability and youth organisations issued a petition to the Prime Minister calling for him to step down this week. Symbolic violence to express dissent is likely as new announcements of Chinese deals come through. Sabotage, lootings and other low-level forms of violence against property and persons is likely in the short term, and without preventative actions this violence could escalate.
Donors can and should respond to Solomon Islands current transition and levels of instability by strengthening local capacities and institutions that can moderate conflict risks and respond to conflict situations to the satisfaction of citizens. Access to legal assistance is severely lacking for provincial or local level groups wanting greater standards and control over extractive industry developments. An example of what is possible was provided by the communities in Wagina which resisted mining developments through the use of pro bono lawyers from Australia working in conjunction with public solicitors. This kind of support could be provided in a more coordinated way to communities and provinces under greatest pressure to open up lands to mining, logging and other development.
There is value in donors engaging with different levels of governance; rather than a solely national level focus, an inclusion of provincial, local, tribal and civil society groups. When there are problems with governance at the national level, provincial and civil society organisations can act as important advocates, provide alternate systems of airing and managing disputes, and build local capacity to deal with emerging and current conflicts. As indicated by the anti-switch sentiment in the provinces, overlooking this level of governance furthers separatist sentiments which ultimately could negatively impact national peace and security.
The lack of transparency over the switch and deals with China is concerning and underlines the need for the development sector to build transparency measures into all its interventions. Simple measures, such as complaints hotlines fielded by experienced staff for key services such as education, justice, health and police could be encouraged and supported through donor assistance. One example of a service that needs such specialisation is the police. Even after the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) which invested AUD3 billion into law and order assistance in Solomon Islands, the local police force is yet to have an accessible complaints hotline used by the general public or a mechanism where the public can anonymously report crimes, such as Crimestoppers in Australia. Instead, police officers rely on reports from members of the public in order to open cases and take action. This is unlikely to occur in high crime urban areas or in cases of corruption of leaders due to fear and lack of trust in institutions to respond to abuses of power.
Finally, whether or not Solomon Islands falls into debt in its dealings with China will be in part about the level of influence of local businesses, banks and the middle class, which will have the most to lose if the economy downturns. Economically, there needs to be more interventions that drive self-sufficiency and indigenous business, such as promotion of value added food products, agricultural exports, the services industry, local transport and sustainable fisheries. Local businesses can reduce aid dependency and poverty but are often deprioritised in assistance, and even in aid agencies’ own procurement of goods and services, to the detriment of economic growth and poverty reduction overall. Politically, the development sector can help strengthen local checks and balances on power, such as the law, policing, provincial and local level governance, the media, civil society and civic education.
Out of every crisis comes perils and opportunity, and this is the case with the switch. It could be a dimmer switch to darker times of debt, poverty, inequality, anti-Asian sentiment, separatist movements, symbolic violence and national conflict, or it could be a time of a light being shone on current problems in order to brighten prospects for economic growth, average incomes, business partnerships and trade, social inclusion and peace. Strategic responses by local and international actors now can adjust the setting of the switch.
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