𝘣𝘺 𝘢𝘯 𝘖𝘣𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘦𝘳
Geopolitical competitions can have adverse impacts on third-party countries that find themselves at the center of the rivalry. We are seeing this in Solomon Islands where domestic political discourses – at least in Honiara and on social media – are dominated by conversations about the country’s relationship with China and the US-led Western allies. These are characterized by extremely divergent opinions, and could negatively impact Solomon Islands in the long-term. On one side are the China proponents. They include government ministers and backbenchers, some public servants, political appointees and many ordinary Solomon Islanders. They perceive China (and its flotilla of state officials, companies, citizens and investors) as Solomon Islands’ savior and its intensions as benevolent and infallible. They highlight China’s role in infrastructure developments such as the national stadium, the Munda airport terminal, the SINU Panatina complex, etc., often without mentioning that many of these involve Chinese contractors, but are financed by other funding agencies. They decry the US and its allies’ long absence in the country and ignore Australia’s 13-year-long and $2.6 billion investments in RAMSI, or dismiss it as largely beneficial to Australia through “boomerang aid”.
It’s difficult to have constructive conversations with them because they take upon themselves as defenders of China and are fervently anti-West. On the other side of the debate are those who hate China because they see it as inherently evil and corruptive. They emphasize its political status as a one-party-communist dictatorship, its suppression of minorities such as Uyghurs, the corruptive influence of Chinese entrepreneurs, and accuse Beijing of being anti-Christian. They contrast this to the US, Australia and other western countries that they see as hallmarks of neo-liberal democracy that Solomon Islands should emulate. They present China as a monolithic entity with total control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ignoring the complex web of Chinese actors and sometimes differing interests and the fact that the CCP might not necessarily have control over all of its diaspora actors. This group is also difficult to have constructive conversations with because they are vehemently anti-China and wear it as a badge of honor. These groups with differing opinions do not discuss. They shout at each other, mostly on social media. This has caused divisions, like that between the national government and the previous Malaita provincial government. Such divisions are socially corrosive and could potentially degenerate into violence, as seen in the November 2021 riots in Honiara. However, there is a middle ground where there can be constructive dialogue. Such discussions should emphasize the interests of Solomon Islands and how the SIG could best manage its engagements with the competing global powers, rather than simply become a pawn in their power projections.
Solomon Islands needs China, US, Australia, EU and other development partners. Fundamental to these partnerships should be the improvement of Solomon Islanders’ livelihood, not attempts to gain political capital or kowtowing to any of them. In these engagements there is a need for clear development goals, priorities, strategies and outcomes that will improve the livelihoods of a majority of people and ensure they have access to adequate and quality social services such as health, education, transportation, etc. Solomon Islands must dictate and manage the agendas of its international engagements. These are development partners. Not saviors, towards whom Solomon Islands is a subservient tributary state. China is Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner, both as export destination and import source. Most of the exports are round logs and other primary commodities with little, if any, value-added. This is unlikely to change soon given the nature of the country’s economy and those who dominate it. It is likely that most of those exporting and importing are Chinese entrepreneurs and companies with Solomon Islanders as largely resource rent recipients. Such trades might generate tax revenue that fill the state’s coffers, provide some jobs, but leave most Solomon Islanders at the margins of the country’s economy. Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Japan and other countries and development agencies might not be major trading partners, but are equally vital in assisting Solomon Islands in the provision of social services and improving its productive sector, especially those that directly involve Solomon Islanders. Emphasis on value-added industries and access to high-value niche markets might not be visibly tantalizing like a stadium, but could potentially be more impactful in the long-term. The US is in a bit of a quagmire. Its increased engagement with Solomon Islands is reactionary; an attempt to counter China’s growing influence. But it can’t act fast enough and risks over promising and underdelivering. Unlike Beijing where there is centralized decision-making, in the US most decisions and the authorization to disburse public funds must go through congressional processes. That is not easy, especially given the current divisions in US domestic politics. Despite this, the Solomon Islands government must capitalize on its renewed interest and push Washington DC to deliver on its promises outlined in the Declaration on US-Pacific Partnership. Recently, the bipartisan Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus re-introduced the Boosting Long-term Engagement in the Pacific (BLUE Pacific) Act. This piece of legislation was first introduced in July 2020 and lays out a renewed vision and framework for U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Islands over the coming generation. It would not be surprising if a congressional delegation visits Honiara soon to discuss the substance and nature of US engagements. The SIG must dictate the agendas of this relationship without turning a cold shoulder to Washington DC simply because it has a preferred partner. (Polygamous relationships are acceptable in international relations). In this era of hyper-geopolitical competition, China and the US will project their self-interest. That’s what powerful states do. These projections are often masqueraded as benevolent acts. It is up to Solomon Islands to manage where and how it engages with these powers. That is not easy, especially when powerful countries exploit Solomon Islands’ vulnerabilities and tickle the egos of political leaders and their cronies. In the euphoria of finding themselves at the center of increasing external interests, Solomon Islands leaders could easily be enthralled to accepting projects that are visually seductive, but benefit only a few and leave long-term costs the country can’t afford. Visit diplomacy is a form of statecraft often used to seduce leaders by manipulating their ego and sense of self-importance. Since 2019 there has been a revolving door of high level officials from Australia, US, China, Japan, etc. visiting Honiara. (This is despite the fact that Honiara has no revolving door). Large delegations from Solomon Islands have visited other countries. China is a master in visit diplomacy; it rolls out the red carpet, mounts a guard of honor and pampers politicians and officials, leaving them in a trance that makes some think they are “back home.” Other countries are likely to entice Solomon Islands through visit diplomacies, but are unlikely to outmatch Beijing. In finding itself at center of increasing geopolitical competition, Solomon Islands must not kowtow and become a tributary state of others, including China and the US. All development partners are important. But most fundament is the wellbeing of Solomon Islanders. It is therefore important for Solomon Islanders to find a middle ground in their conversations about these issues. ~ # ~