Australia should blame itself for the Solomon Islands shift to China

The fear caused by China’s planned security Act with the Solomon Islands shows that Australia, New Zealand, the US and Japan are afraid of losing their influence in the Pacific – but are struggling to do something about it.

When the draft deal — under which Beijing could dispatch police to quell local unrest and stop Chinese warships at local ports for replenishment and repairs — was leaked last month, the powers that traditionally dominated the region were leaked expressed great concern.

The security concerns are understandable. If the Chinese navy were to gain a foothold in the Solomon Islands, it could block sea routes to Australia – both for trade and for the Australian military, an ally the US would rely on in the event of a conflict with China in the region. But the reaction also shows that Canberra and its allies’ sole focus on geopolitics has undermined their regional influence.

“Australia and the US tend to see the world through their own interests: what’s good for us is good for the Pacific Islands, so you should do the things we do,” said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate professor at the University of Hawaii and a Solomon Islander. “In that case, they’re telling the Solomons that you can’t have that kind of relationship with China. The irony is that we can and do,” he added, referring to failed attempts by Western powers to halt the islands’ move in 2019 change diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China.

Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister who intends to sign this security business with Beijing, has assured traditional partners that a Solomon Islands government would not allow a Chinese “military base” to be built in the country. However, he described your criticism of the security pact as “insulting”.

The uproar reflects long-standing problems in the Western powers’ approach to the region. While they regard the Pacific island nations’ maritime space as strategic, their foreign policy bureaucracies lack the capacity to focus on the culturally diverse and small populations of these countries.

There are efforts to change that. The US is planning to reopen its embassy in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, after a 29-year absence. Australia and New Zealand have also adopted new policy initiatives.

But success was limited. Australia accounts for nearly half of the $22.7 billion in aid to the region since 2009, but observers say that wealth hasn’t translated into the impact Canberra expected.

According to a parliamentarian report Published last month, several experts called for more investment in cultural and community ties to help Australian politicians and the public better understand their Pacific neighbors.

One problem is diverging priorities. In the 2018 Boe Declaration, Australia joined the Pacific island nations in identifying climate change as “the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific”. But in the eyes of the several Pacific islands directly threatened by sea-level rise, Canberra has eroded its credibility with lackluster targets to cut carbon emissions.

Solomon Islands politicians say Western partners need to fine-tune their support to help stabilize the unstable nation. “Eighty percent of the students who leave our schools have absolutely no chance of finding a job,” said Matthew Wale, a lawmaker and leader of the opposition Democratic Party, who has accused China of funding Sogavare and lawmakers that support it. “We are in a situation of government capture. Australia is doing a lot but its support may not have the impact it needs.”

The Chinese Embassy in Honiara did not respond to a request for comment.

Similarly, local experts argue that shortcomings in security aid from Australia and New Zealand may have prompted Honiara to turn to China. Police dispatched from Canberra during last November’s riots focused on securing vital infrastructure that didn’t include shops. Since most retail outlets are owned by ethnic Chinese, this minority has become the main victim of violence.

To gain momentum, the region’s western partners may need to learn from Beijing’s rulebook. Local observers say China’s many traders and contractors give it an advantage over countries represented only by diplomats. Wales advice to Canberra: “Maybe they need to be a little more creative.” Australia should blame itself for the Solomon Islands shift to China

Adam Bradshaw

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