China must be hoping that Australia persists in its “business as usual” approach to Solomon Islands.
An appeasement policy by Australia towards the Solomons prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has been outstandingly successful for Beijing over the past few years, and the CCP’s muscular actions in the South Pacific in the last six months seem to anticipate that it will continue.
Since the news of Sogavare’s alleged secret military deal with China was leaked in March, the cycle of response and counter-response between Honiara and Canberra has been entirely predictable.
It goes like this: a bombshell revelation is leaked from Solomon government sources to local social media. The Australian press seizes on it. There is silence from both capitals – a calculated one from Honiara, and an agonised one from Canberra.
Sogavare denies the truth of the news.
He then pivots to blustering about sovereignty. Morrison issues cloying statements about the “Pacific family”. DFAT officials are trotted out to recycle tired talking points about cooperation and Australia’s “favoured status” as Solomon Islands’s security partner. Canberra blusters to its counterparts in Washington DC – who, years ago, made the fatal error of outsourcing their response to the running cycle of crises in the Solomons to Australia and New Zealand – that it has everything under control.
A closer search for details reveals that much is still unclear and unconfirmed. Australian-funded thinktank analysts and academics seize on this lack of clarity to play semantics. They then propose their favourite activities and a few harebrained schemes as solutions. The mainstream media sidesteps these gatekeepers and piles unrelenting coverage on a region where they have next to no local expertise or presence.
Canberra officials fly in, grab a photo opportunity and leave. Confirming and increasingly grave revelations emerge from Honiara. Solomon Islander voices are called for. They respond with clarity, authority and eloquence – then are steadfastly ignored if they clash with the status quo narrative from Canberra.
An Australian minister flies into Honiara, meets with Sogavare and repeats the original points that Morrison first made. The serious statements of “concern” they utter are completely neutered by overwrought kowtowing to “sovereignty”, which rings hollow in a country that is close to being a failed state.
In the backrooms, Canberra officials propose a response. It looks exactly like that of the last five, 10, 15 years, only more supersized.
In Solomon Islands we can recite this tired old script with our eyes closed, because we have watched it many times before. It was the script between Sogavare and Morrison in 2019 before the switch to China from Taiwan. It was the script last November after Australia intervened to tip the scales in favour of Sogavare when he faced a parliamentary motion of no confidence.
Even further back in 2018, it was the script between Canberra and Honiara when the Huawei cable deal was proposed and Canberra coughed up the money for the Coral Sea cable.
The pattern is clear. In the absence of a realistic and clear-eyed strategy, Australia is again trying to buy leverage with the corrupt central elite after having squandered its influence in the Solomons for more than a decade.
For 15 years, during the RAMSI mission, Australian officials had a hands-off approach towards the vastly corrupt logging industry that has been China’s Trojan horse into Solomon politics. At the same time, they concentrated power and resources on the central Solomon government, setting it up for capture.
This myopia continues unabated to this day, with a deep unwillingness by the Australian foreign policy establishment to try alternate approaches that engage with the wider parliamentary system in Solomon Islands, or the country’s nine provinces.
With Sogavare as an autocrat-in-waiting, an intelligent strategy is not to systematically sideline cabinet ministers, MPs and provincial governments, but to engage with them. A rare and positive exception to this foreign policy-development industry groupthink has been the USAID SCALE program, which has engaged with the private sector and Malaita Province. Yet rather than learning from the US approach, Canberra has been intent on undermining it within the Honiara donor circuit.
The logic is faulty. And the result is both a less secure Australia, and a less democratic Solomon Islands.
Since the latest crisis emerged, Canberra has seemed more concerned with keeping up appearances in Washington DC and among the Australian public than with responding in any effective way to an existential security crisis on its border. The pattern is clear, and has been repeated ad nauseam.
For some reason the Australian foreign policy establishment thinks that explaining how much they do for Solomon Islands will somehow erase the ink of the deal signed between Solomon Islands and Chinese officials.
Or that further meetings with Sogavare – whose dislike of Australian governments is well known – will somehow reverse PLAN submarines back to Hainan instead of berthing in Honiara.
Canberra should admit to its foreign partners in the Pacific that it has not been able to manage its own security interests, and has undermined the democracy of one of its closest neighbours.
It’s time to throw out Australia’s tired old Solomon Islands script. And when United States national security council adviser Kurt Campbell visits Honiara this week to press the Sogavare government to end the security agreement, Australia should have the humility to step back, and see if a fresh approach can do better.
Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, who tweets @CelsusIrokwato, is an adviser to premier Daniel Suidani, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands