Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has used Chinese money to shore up his government. Whether alignment with Chinese interests is to follow will likely depend on Canberra’s ability to meet competing funding promises.
Attracting client states can prove a costly business. In July, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare returned from Beijing with a new police assistance package, including promises of a forensic autopsy laboratory and of drones for riot control. The latest package implements an earlier security deal with China, leaked in draft form in March 2022, which allows Chinese naval vessels to dock in the Solomon Islands and Chinese armed police to be deployed to deal with urban unrest. After touching down in his country’s capital, Honiara, Sogavare accused Australia and New Zealand of reneging on their promises of budget support and, implausibly, claimed that China had stepped in to fill the gap. Canberra and Wellington have denied this, but neither is likely to withhold assistance in protest at the Solomon Islands’ expanding relationships with Beijing. Empowered by growing geopolitical tensions, Sogavare has been able to play one side off against the other in his efforts to secure concessions.
The bidding war commenced in the aftermath of the Solomon Islands switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. The price tag included a new national stadium, a US$500 million bung from China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and China reluctantly assuming responsibility for slush funds previously donated by Taiwan. Australia, which ran a AUD$2.6 billion peacekeeping mission to that island state over 2003-17, has been struggling to keep pace. In November 2021, major riots in Honiara triggered Australia to send in troops, but it was at first announced that they would only stay “a matter of weeks.” When Sogavare – whose residence had been targeted during the mayhem – turned to China for assistance, Canberra swiftly announced that the deployment would continue until the end of 2023 and later offered AUD$22 million in budget support. In November 2022, Australia handed over 13 vehicles and an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, only to be trumped, two days later, by a Chinese donation of two water cannon trucks for riot control, 30 motor cycles, and 20 police cars.
China generally does not offer budget support to recipients of its aid, but in the Solomon Islands Beijing has been unable to follow its preferred route of concessional loan-funded projects that give state-linked companies a commercial foothold in recipient countries in Africa, Asia or elsewhere in the Pacific. Most of the Chinese projects announced since the 2019 diplomatic switch have been grant-funded, including a US$50 million stadium in the capital to host this year’s South Pacific Games, buildings for the Solomon Islands National University, a new wing for Honiara’s dilapidated “Number 9” hospital, and the Mongga Bridge on Guadalcanal (although the CCECC won a World Bank tender to construct a new airport terminal in the Western Solomons). The more significant exception is the Gold Ridge mine in central Guadalcanal which is now 90 percent owned by Hong Kong listed Wanguo International in a joint venture with local landowners, but that mine was barely profitable prior to its abandonment by the previous owner St Barbara in 2014.
Frustrated at being squeezed out by China’s concessional loan funded projects, Australia established its own Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) in 2019 to broker low cost loans across the region. After a sluggish start, it now boasts 24 projects, many in strategically sensitive areas such as submarine telecommunications, ports or airports. Yet, Australian firms are unlikely to follow the East Asian model of securing a commercial foothold, even if the initial returns are small, and subsequently expanding into other sectors in the manner of companies like China Railway First or CCECC. Many Australian firms will be glad to take up tenders for infrastructure projects, but they will then swiftly depart the country once those projects are completed. New Zealand has been reluctant to follow its neighbour across the Tasman down the concessional loan road.
Sogavare has used Chinese assistance to shore up his government, including delaying elections by a year purportedly because they would otherwise have clashed with the South Pacific Games. Being bankrolled by Beijing enabled him to steer through parliament the constitutional amendment required to postpone elections and to avoid the perennial no confidence challenges faced by most Solomon Islands Prime Ministers. Unusually, he looks likely to now survive a full term in office, only the third Solomon Islands politician ever to do so. This is Sogavare’s fourth term in office, but he was ousted through no-confidence votes in 2007 and 2019, and he has never served one term straight after the other. Indeed, no sitting Solomon Islands Prime Minister has ever been returned to the top job after an election, for one major reason. No matter how sizable the slush funds available to outgoing prime ministers, any alternative leader is likely to have access to similar resources. For that reason, political competition becomes particularly acute in the immediate aftermath of general elections as Members of Parliament gather in Honiara to elect a new leader. Given the extent of the Chinese largesse, post-election competition for the prime ministerial post is likely to be particularly acute in 2024.
Jon Fraenkel is a Professor in Comparative Politics in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington. He is author of The Manipulation of Custom: from uprising to intervention in the Solomon Islands, and co-editor of The 2006 Military Takeover in Fiji: A coup to end all coups? He is the Pacific Islands correspondent for The Economist.
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