Solomon Islands leader feels he’s ‘back home’ amid weeklong visit to China

Stephen Wright
Solomon Islands leader feels he’s ‘back home’ amid weeklong visit to China Chinese Premier Li Qiang (right) and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare are pictured at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 10, 2023.

China’s leaders have feted Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on his second official visit to their country and promised further aid to the economically-lagging island nation that has become Beijing’s beachhead in the Pacific. 

Relations between China and the Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) northeast of Brisbane, Australia, have blossomed since Sogavare’s government switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from democratically governed Taiwan in 2019. 

The two countries signed a security agreement last year, alarming the United States and its allies such as Australia, who worry it could lead to a Chinese military presence in the South Pacific.

Sogavare, accompanied by a delegation of Cabinet ministers, legislators and business leaders, began a week-long visit to China on Sunday. On Monday, he met China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang, according to state news agency Xinhua. 

A joint Solomon Islands-China statement, published by Xinhua, said the two countries had signed nine agreements covering development cooperation, trade, infrastructure development, civil aviation, education, police affairs, customs and meteorology. Details of the agreements have not been made public.

The statement said relations had been elevated to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” 

Sogavare, who will also visit Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, appeared impressed by his red-carpet reception. 

“I’m back home,” the prime minister said in a video posted online by state-run China Global Television Network that showed Sogavare and his wife Emmy Sogavare greeted by Chinese officials. 

“The busy Beijing traffic gave way to the motorcade of more than 20 vehicles. The Solomon Islands and PRC flags were flown alongside each other along the streets,” said a statement Monday from Sogavare’s office, describing his arrival in Beijing.  

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (right) and Chinese Premier Li Qiang review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 10, 2023. [AP]

China’s influence in the Pacific has burgeoned over several decades through a combination of increased trade, infrastructure investment and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan – which it considers a rebel province – and advance its own economic and security interests. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati also switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.

In a speech to a forum in Beijing on economic development, Sogavare echoed Beijing’s talking points in its sparring with the U.S., which has the world’s largest economy and military. 

Sogavare’s speech “underscored the need to rise above those that want to create a divided world with ideological geopolitical fault lines,” the statement from his office said.  

Xi, following his meeting with Sogavare, said the Solomon Islands had become the “pacesetter” for relations between China and Pacific island countries, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Recognition of China has proven to be the “correct choice” for the Solomon Islands, Xi said.

Li said China is willing to expand economic and development cooperation with the Solomon Islands, according to Xinhua and a second statement from Sogavare’s office.

Under Sogavare, the Solomon Islands has sought to benefit from the China-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific by securing more development assistance. 

The country of some 700,000 people grapples with crumbling roads, limited telecommunications and lack of basic healthcare. At the same time as Sogavare is visiting China, power supply in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara has been cut for two-hour periods several times a day while maintenance is carried out on generators, according to the country’s power company.

The competition for influence in the Solomons has spilled into domestic security, raising concerns it could cause new instability in a country that spiraled into chaos only two decades ago, culminating in an Australian-led military intervention from 2003 until 2017.

Both China and Australia have been training Solomon Islands police and donating equipment, including water cannons gifted by China and guns courtesy of Australia. In the past month the Solomons has been given seven Nissan X-Trail SUVs from Australia as well as night-vision devices, drones, a wireless signal jammer and two vehicles from China.

Sogavare’s trip to China comes after Australia earlier this month offered to extend a military and police deployment in the Solomon Islands. The Pacific island country is preparing to host a regional sporting event later this year – bankrolled by China, Australia and Indonesia – and hold postponed elections in the first half of 2024. 

Australia sent more than 200 troops and police to the Solomon Islands in late 2021 at the request of Sogavare’s government following anti-China and anti-government riots in the capital Honiara. 

So far, the Solomons Islands government has neither publicly accepted nor rejected Australia’s offer. Sogavare has said a security treaty between Australia and the Solomon Islands needs to be reviewed.


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