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Sogavare’s military deal with China

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Secrecy

The first observation that must be made about the so-called security deal Prime Minister Sogavare has negotiated with China is that the secrecy around it carries grave risks for Solomon Islands.

Domestically, Malaita perceives this deal as targeted at it – the secrecy does nothing to remove those fears. Quite the contrary, Prime Minister Sogavare perceives the secrecy as an escalation in his struggle with Malaita. How this deal will be used on the Malaita situation has direct implications on all provinces in Solomon Islands and governance broadly. A vibrant democracy is marked by the acceptance of a plurality of views and an inclusive embracive government. Secrecy is the opposite of these very important values in a democracy.

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Externally, the secrecy lands Solomon Islands right in the center of the geopolitical tussle for influence in the Pacific Islands region. A transparent agreement will be seen by all sides in the geopolitical competition now underway, and be accommodated in the political and military calculations that are part of that competition. Conversely, the secret deal will place those competing with China to assume the worst and plan along those lines. As a signatory to the deal, this cannot be good for Solomon Islands. We do not want to be the grass on which the elephants fight.

We must ask the questions, why is it necessary to keep this deal a secret? Secret from who? From citizens or Aust or US? How is the secrecy supposed to enhance Solomon Islands national security?

Neither Sogavare nor his DCGA has any mandate from the people for a deal of such a nature. Although consultations may mitigate that somewhat, it cannot be a substitute for seeking such a mandate from general elections. Secrecy cannot mitigate that lack of a mandate. On the contrary, secrecy is contempt for the need for a mandate from the people. Bilateral agreements are a routine matter for government to pursue, but not a broad security deal with an autocratic government.

External threats

Solomon Islands does not have any external enemies and faces no threats from external forces. This alone should be enough not to allow the transit of or shoring of PRC military assets in our country. What benefit is there for Solomon Islands in doing that? It only attracts exactly what we do not want to be part of – the focus of geopolitical interests and competition. The lack of external threats removes any arguments that there is a need for military engagement with the PRC and therefore should be excluded entirely from the deal.

Solomon Islands must take steps to enact law that fills the gap under section 19 of the constitution that deems the military law of foreign powers acting under an agreement with our government as applicable in our jurisdiction for the discipline of members of forces of such foreign powers. The deal will have the effect of undermining our political and basic rights under the constitution, if such rights are violated by such foreign forces. This is the more urgent when Sogavare is entering into a deal with a communist government with values that are very different to our own.

RAMSI was a clear demonstration that regional security platforms are the most effective and the preferable option.  If Sogavare sees external threats to our national security, he should seek first option of a collective regional security platform.

His statement that he will be seeking security agreements with PNG and Fiji strikes me as belated attempts to play on this neglected option.

Sogavare has said that he is seeking to diversify Solomon Islands bilateral security arrangements. As noted earlier, in the absence of any credible external threats, diversifying our bilateral security arrangements is pointless. Bilateral security arrangements are platforms to protect our national security against identified potential external threats.

Internal threats

All the drivers of instability, insecurity and even threats to national unity in Solomon Islands are entirely internal. This means that the deal, in giving opportunity to military posturing by China, has nothing to do with Solomon Islands national security. I doubt that the provision for this in the deal is inadvertent, rather it is calculated for geopolitical effect. On the part of Prime Minister Sogavare this is mercenary, on the part of China it is an opportunity too good to miss. Prime Minister Sogavare has long held grievances against Australia and longed for the day he would extract revenge. That day has arrived, and he has gladly thrust his sword into Australia’s back. China is only too happy to oblige Prime Minister Sogavare; there is a meeting of minds on this.

Drivers of internal insecurity/instability

The ethnic tensions and the riots in our recent history did not have any external interests nor drivers. They were all driven by internal discontent. The drivers of such discontent are poor governance (high levels of corruption and state capture; the lack of decentralized governance), economic marginalization (exploitative extractive industry; high unemployment; lack of opportunity), and poor government services (poor quality healthcare, poor quality education).

Honiara continues to monopolize decision-making and consume a disproportionate share of the national income and wealth. The provincial governments have long complained of merely ‘being the agents of the central government’. Prime Minister Sogavare’s Attorney General has been at pains to stress to the provincial governments to remain faithful ‘agents of the national government’. This is clearly unsustainable, yet the pretense continues.

The fact that only the 50 MPs in parliament elect the Prime Minister, coupled with a highly centralized government system, has lent Solomon Islands governance extremely vulnerable to state capture and corruption at the highest levels. Political executive government lacks a direct accountability relationship to the people. The recent decision by OUR party that its members run in the general elections as independents is evidence of treachery to evade that accountability.

For many decades, logging companies have perfected this state capture. The logging industry has had its own way in Solomon Islands, aided and abetted by Solomon Islands leaders. Prime Minister Sogavare is a long time favorite of the logging industry. Logging industry is happy to give the Prime Ministership to Sogavare, as long as he lets them have their way. It has been quite a cozy relationship. The Prime Ministership has been in the giving of the logging industry, especially in the last twenty years. The candidate with the closest relationship to the logging industry and most willing to accede to their demands is more likely to become Prime Minister. The result is state capture, and a poorer Solomon Islands government and people.

The Solomon Islands economy is built on an exploitative model. The extractive industry leads the way, aided and abetted by Solomon Islands government leaders. Natural resources are removed from our islands, and our people are poorer after that. No tangible sustainable development has resulted from this exploitative economy. The country’s wealth goes overseas through unrestrained transfer pricing, aided and abetted by the country’s leaders. Indigenous Solomon Islanders own all the natural resources, and are marginalized by this exploitative economy. There is no incentive to change the status quo, as long as key government leaders continue to be the beneficiaries of this exploitative economy. The exploitative economy only works for foreign interests. Indigenous Solomon Islanders ask why their own government goes out of its way to serve foreign business interests, and neglect their own people. This is a key driver of internal discontent, and a threat to stability. The PLA cannot address this. On the contrary, Sogavare’s deal with China is more likely to be used to further entrench this by protecting a corrupt central government from accountability to the people.

No country can be truly secure and stable where around 80% of its population is unemployed. Our people are a very tolerant lot, but their patience has been running thin for a while. The exploitative economy will never build the future Solomon Islands that must give hope to our young. Serious substantive structural reforms are needed to make the Solomon Islands economy work for Solomon Islanders. Is it an unreasonable expectation for a young Solomon Islander to look forward to a job on leaving school? A job that pays a reasonable living wage, on which he or she can build a meaningful life? Economic opportunities for young Solomon Islanders are scarce, and the playing field for entry into meaningful economic participation is grossly uneven. Their own government is too busy looking after foreign interests to care about their own people. The Sogavare deal with China is likely to perpetuate this status quo for a very long time to come. This is a key driver of discontent and a threat to security and stability. It is not helped by a government that rejects diverse opinions.

The reach and quality of government services to the majority of Solomon Islanders are poor. The education system continues to produce a substandard quality product for the 21st century. Solomon Islanders wonder why, with all the natural wealth being exploited in the country, is access to education still expensive and beyond the affordability of many. Solomon Islanders ask why poor health and death must continue to be taken for granted as a matter of life for the majority. Are these unreasonable questions to ask of their government?

Conclusion

These are the drivers of domestic discontent and pose threats to national stability, unity and security. If the Prime Minister is serious about addressing national security, he would start with these drivers and seek radical redirection of government to deal substantively with them. Sogavare’s deal with China cannot address these things. That would be an abdication of responsibility by the government (although I recognize it is not beyond him). To disregard the above considerations would be placing this nation’s agency within a vacuum. That is, exercising the sovereignty of choice without weighing internal considerations.

If Sogavare is sincere in seeking to address these things, the clearest demonstration of his sincerity would be an acceptance of a robust debate and a willingness to listen and embrace views from women’s groups, churches, NGOs, and other organizations that are different to his own. Castigating people with differing views as if they are enemies and somehow inferior smacks of immaturity and paranoia.

Hon Matthew Wale, MP

OPPOSITION LEADER

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