China, Australia on charm offensive with new Solomon Islands PM

Charley Piringi
2024.06.10
Honiara, Solomon Islands
China, Australia on charm offensive with new Solomon Islands PM Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets with Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele in Honiara during a two-day visit, June 5, 2024.
Australian High Commission Solomon Islands

A flurry of diplomatic visits from China, Australia and other countries to Solomon Islands has followed the election of a new government last month, as the nations vie for influence with Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele.

While the foreign powers pursue the coveted title of number one security partner, Manele has said his priorities are economic recovery and development for the Pacific Island nation, which lies some 1,750 kilometers (1,087 miles) off Australia’s east coast.

He has also said his country “will not be forced to take sides” strategically or militarily.

Solomon Islands is a focal point for geostrategic competition between the United States and its allies and China, which is expanding its presence and influence in the Pacific region.

In the weeks since Manele’s election in May, Australia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Washington’s Papua New Guinea-based ambassador, China’s special envoy to the Pacific and Japan’s ambassador to the Pacific have all visited.

Manele replaced former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, under whom he served as foreign minister. Sogavare took an aggressive pro-China posture and had a fractious relationship with the U.S. and successive Australian governments, the country’s largest aid donor. 

“The tempo of diplomatic visits by Australia, China and other partners reflect the desire to get onto Prime Minister Manele’s dance card as quickly as possible to curry favor and influence,” Associate Professor Anna Powles, from the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told BenarNews.

“Manele’s coalition, many of whom were in Sogavare's government, are well-versed in the value and practice of strategic hedging so we are likely to see a continuation of the same foreign policy behaviors albeit differences in tone,” she added.

Manele heads the Government for National Unity and Transformation coalition, also known as GNUT. 

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong touched down for a two-day visit to the capital Honiara last week.

“I welcome Prime Minister Manele’s views about this being an opportunity … to transform our relationship in accordance with Solomon Islands priorities,” she said afterwards in an interview with Australian national broadcaster ABC.

Wong said Australia “in the past has not been as good a partner, as involved a partner, as we would like.”

She blamed the previous Australian government and promised to do better by “respectfully listening” and acting on Solomon Islands’ priorities. 

PHOTO 1 PM-Manele-meets-H.E.-Qian-Bo.jpg
Chinese Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Qian Bo meets with Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele in Honiara on June 4, 2024. [Solomon Islands Government]

 

Wong’s visit to the so-called “Hapi Isles” began just as Qian Bo, China’s Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Affairs, flew out of Honiara last Wednesday. Bo was the first high-level Chinese official to meet the new prime minister and was warmly greeted by Manele, who reaffirmed the “Solomon Islands cleared-eyed respect for the ‘One China Policy’.”

China’s embassy in Honiara in a brief note said Bo’s delegation discussed “relations, pragmatic cooperation and issues of common concern.”

Manele said in a statement after the meeting that he was committed to the “special relationship” between the two countries and that Solomon Islands was “grateful for the quality infrastructure” provided by China. 

No statement was issued after his meeting with Wong.

Solomon Islands swapped diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. In 2022, former Prime Minister Sogavare signed a controversial security pact with Beijing, ringing alarm bells in Washington and Canberra.

Sogavare uncontroversially renewed an existing security deal with Australia in 2017 and signed another with Papua New Guinea in 2023.

As foreign minister at the time, Manele was central to negotiating the Chinese security deal. 

Ahead of last week’s diplomatic engagements, Manele outlined his approach “to capitalize on the opportunities” but also “manage the challenges.” 

“We do acknowledge the big countries, they have their interests strategically, military, but for us … development interest is number one,” he told a press conference on May 27.

He said “one partner alone could not meet all of Solomon Islands’ development needs,” so his country would maintain its “friends-to-all, enemy-to-none” approach.

“We will not be forced to take sides. I hope that is clear,” he said. 

His comments followed a visit from Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles, who later said Manele told him the Pacific Island nation was reviewing its security agreements.

“Manele is younger than his predecessor and will be focussed less on his political legacy and more on political longevity,” Powles said. 

“Economic and development progress is his main priority and the pursuit of that will demand skillful balancing on his part.”

PHOTO 2 Wong .jpg
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong visits a foreign aid funded education project at Mbokona Community High School in West Honiara on May 6, 2024. [Charley Piringi/BenarNews]

Australia has more than 100 federal police officers in Solomon Islands as part of a special assistance force deployed following deadly anti-government and anti-China riots in 2021. It is unclear how long they will remain in the country. 

Wong said Australia wanted to be Solomon Islands’ first partner on security issues and continue working with other Pacific Island countries, such as Papua New Guinea and Fiji. 

“That is the Pacific family working together to assure their security,” she told the ABC.

Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji deployed about 600 personnel to help with security needs for the Pacific Games in Honiara last year. 

China – which funded most of the games and built a new national stadium – deployed police officers to Solomon Islands in 2022, with their numbers reportedly peaking at 30 during the event.

Australia is Solomon Islands’ biggest aid donor, with A$103.6 million Australian dollars (U.S. $69 million) allocated in last month’s federal budget, a drop of A$70 million (U.S. $46 million) from the previous year.

While in the country, Wong opened a school science laboratory and announced A$5.2 million (U.S. $3.4 million) in aid for educational infrastructure and A$3.2 million (U.S. $2.1 million) for dozens of school water and sanitation projects.

“We are up for a bigger relationship. I would say our focus is not just on the now but what is it we can do together to build a brighter future,” she said at the Mbokona Community High School in West Honiara.

In 2019, Solomon Islands signed up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, negotiating the construction of 161 telecommunication towers across the archipelago and a major road in Malaita province.

During his trip, Bo visited a fisheries project in Central Guadalcanal outside the capital, part of a U.S. $1.2 million Chinese-funded national rural development scheme, reported Solomons’ national broadcaster SIBC.

China gifted boats, engines and building materials worth U.S. $185,000 to the electorate of Minister for Foreign Affairs Peter Shanel, who was not present.

“The Solomon Islands government is very grateful that it has a true friend in China,” said Rural Development Minister Rollen Seleso at the ceremony, according to SIBC.

“China recognizes the true needs of Solomon Islands and has never been reluctant to assist us.”

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