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π˜‰π˜Ί 𝘒𝘯 𝘰𝘣𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘦𝘳

The recent Solomon Islands national general elections were watched attentively by global powers, especially the U.S., China, Australia, New Zealand, and European countries interested in Oceania. The elections reveal three things.

First, domestic issues were more important to voters than geopolitical concerns. Second, the Manele-led government will continue with the policies of the previous government. Third, he will bring a new leadership style but substantive changes in governance are unlikely. Increased attention to Solomon Islands started in September 2019 when it established diplomatic relations with China. It escalated when the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement was signed in April 2022. A draft leaked in March 2022 shows provisions for the deployment of Chinese β€œpolice, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement forces” to the Islands. This alarmed Western countries concerned about China’s growing influence and potential military presence in Oceania. Some, including European countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands once had colonies in the region. France still has its overseas territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. The U.S. has its unincorporated territories of Guam and American Samoan and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Western powers dominated the Pacific during the Cold War period and deployed a β€œstrategic denial” policy aimed at keeping non-Western powers, especially the Soviet Union, out of the region. However, the end of the Cold War saw Western powers retreat from the Pacific, leaving the responsibility of nurturing Western interests largely to Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. however kept its military presence in Guam, the Marshall Islands and its Indo-Pacific Command in HawaiΚ»i, and France in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. From the mid-2000s China’s economic and diplomatic presence and influence in the Pacific Islands escalated, illustrated by the first China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum held in Nadi, Fiji, in 2006. Although China had established diplomatic relations with some Pacific Island countries from 1975, its presence in the region was limited.

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However, as Western countries retreat at the end of the Cold War, island countries looked to China and others as alternative development partners. When President Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing became more assertive and mapped the Pacific Ocean into its Maritime Silk Road. China quickly became the third largest donor to island countries and the single largest trading partner to some. The U.S. and its allies attempted to strengthen their foothold in the region and contain China’s growing influence. Washington DC rallied support around its Indo-Pacific strategy. In addition various strategic alliances were established: the Quadrilateral (QUAD) Security Dialogues between the U.S., Australia, Japan and India; AUKUS through which the U.S. and UK will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines; and the Partners in the Blue Pacific. In 2022 and 2023 the Whitehouse hosted the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit. China, however, continued to be influential. In September 2019 Solomon Islands established and Kiribati re-established diplomatic relations with Beijing. In January 2024 Nauru followed suit. Eleven Pacific Island countries now have diplomatic relations with China, with only three – Palau, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu – with Taiwan. Furthermore, the volume and value of Chinese investments in the region have increased and more Chinese companies are involved, especially in infrastructure and natural resource extractive industries. Solomon Islands came under the spotlight because of the particularly cozy relationship prime minister Sogavare cultivated with Beijing and his outspoken criticism of Western countries. Since establishing relations in 2019, Solomon Islands signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China has gifted Solomon Islands with a stadium and other sports facilities worth about US$220m (Β£176m/€204) to host the 2023 Pacific Games. It has also assisted the Solomon Islands police, is constructing a health center and contributes to other projects that have elevated China’s profile in the country. It is also the island country’s largest trading partner. Australia, however, remains the largest donor to Solomon Islands. The U.S. and its allies have attempted to counter China’s growing influence in Solomon Islands through increased diplomacy and assistance. In April 2022 Washington DC sent Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator to Honiara in attempts to persuade Sogavare not sign the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement. However, before Campbell reached Honiara, Sogavare announced the deal had been signed. In February 2023 the U.S. reopened its embassy in Honiara. Russell Comeau, who was appointed U.S. ChargΓ© d’Affaires to Solomon Islands described it β€œas an enduring symbol of our commitment to the country and the region.” By the time of the elections in April 2024, Solomon Islands had already been caught in currents of geopolitical competition in Oceania. While government officials in Washington DC, Canberra and Wellington publicly expressed their respect of Solomon Islands sovereignty, they quietly hoped the β€œpro-China” Sogavare-led government would lose. Meanwhile Beijing was probably eager to see Sogavare back as prime minister, especially after the Solomon Islands United Party’s Peter Kenilorea Jr. indicated that if his party were to form government they would re-establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Sogavare’s Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party went to the elections with hopes for a big win. It also had more resources and was able to better market itself to voters. While geopolitical issues were mentioned in campaign speeches, most voters focused on domestic issues such as the economy, cost of living, and access to social services. Traditionally, international relations never featured prominently in elections. That is changing, partly because of the much publicized and debated relationship with China and social media has given Solomon Islanders access to information and discussions. Geopolitics was therefore not completely absent. As in previous elections, no single party came out with the majority to form government. Coalitions were therefore forged between parties and Independent members. The coalition consisting of OUR Party came out with the majority. Sogavare opted not to contest for the prime minister position and instead nominated Manele. The coalition Manele now leads is called the Government for National Unity Transformation (GNUT). It is the same government as in the previous parliament but with a new prime minister and new alliances. This raises questions about the future of Solomon Islands and how it navigates the crisscrossing geopolitical currents. Manele did not mention anything about international relations in his inaugural speech, focusing instead on domestic issues. In order for Solomon Islands to rebuild its ailing economy and provide adequate and quality services, it needs development partners. These include Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan, the European Union, the U.S., etc. This government’s foreign policies will be the same as the previous Sogavare-led government. China is an important development partner and the relationship will strengthen. This includes maintaining the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement, despite concerns by Western countries. However, Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands Forum countries will remain the preferred security partners, as seen during the recent elections. What will be different however is Manele’s leadership style, especially the nature of his diplomacy. Prior to entering politics, he had a long career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat, including serving as the Charge d’Affaires of the Solomon Islands Permanent Mission to the United Nations. He carries that diplomatic experience and will likely be not as abrasive as Sogavare. This could allow constructive engagements with all development partners, including China, even where there might be disagreements. Sogavare will however still have influence as the Minister of Finance. Western media have described Manele as β€œChina-friendly” and β€œpro-China.” It is worth noting, however, that apart from being an important development partner, it is also Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner. It also delivers quickly on promises. This is different from the U.S. that tends to over promise and underdeliver, partly because of the cumbersome bureaucracy in DC and the partisan politics in the U.S. Congress. Washington DC could use this opportunity to work with Manele to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. European Union countries also have the opportunity to do the same. In early May Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Australia, New Zealand and Fiji in what the German Foreign Office has described as a β€œcrucial Indo-Pacific region.” Such visit diplomacy could in the future include Honiara. The recent visit by New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, and the cordial welcome to Honiara is perhaps an indication of the changes in Manele’s diplomatic style. With Manele at the helm, Solomon Islands will hopefully better navigate the geopolitical currents to ensure Solomon Islands interests are central, while maintaining and strengthening its relationships with other countries. Development partners have the opportunity to strengthen their relationships with Honiara and collaborate, rather than compete, to assist the island country. As prime minister Manele states, β€œWe will work with all partners, including China.” ~ # ~

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