China’s Influence Weighs Heavily on Solomon Islands Election

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China’s Influence Weighs Heavily on Solomon Islands Election

Chinese cash is reaping political rewards ahead of the Solomon Islands election as the West fails to walk the talk in its Pacific step-up.

China’s Influence Weighs Heavily on Solomon Islands Election
Credit: Depositphotos

China has made it clear who it wants to win Solomon Islands’ upcoming election, and there is little surprise it is the pro-Beijing candidate Manasseh Sogavare. The increase in Chinese investment in Solomon Islands is the political ticket Sogavare and his coalition members need to win back power after the April 17 poll.

Sogavare’s Democratic Coalition Government for Advancement (DCGA) was instrumental in the Solomons’ diplomatic switch from recognizing Taipei to recognizing Beijing in 2019.

This decision changed everything for Solomon Islands.

Sogavare maintains the upper hand going into the election as his coalition was instrumental in facilitating Chinese investments in the country, tapping into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to finance infrastructure developments.

The People’s Republic of China and the many Chinese companies operating in the Solomon Islands want to see Sogavare back at the helm. This is evident from the Chinese Embassy’s support of the incumbent government in facilitating and coordinating many activities leading up to the April 17 elections.

Posts on the Chinese Embassy in Solomon Islands Facebook page demonstrate this active engagement, with Chinese dignitaries pressing the flesh across the country.

This month, a new relationship was struck between the Solomon Islands’ most populated island Malaita Province and Jiangsu Province of China.

 Chinese English-language newspaper The Global Times has since reported on the delivery of “essential items like water tanks, solar lamps, and fishing nets to Malaita’s governor (sic), Martin Fini.

In 2019, Malaita Province Premier Daniel Suidani opposed the diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China. In February 2023, he was ousted following a second vote of no-confidence and was disqualified as provincial member for Ward 5 of West Baegu and Fataleka for refusing to recognize the national government’s One China Policy.

Meanwhile, in North Guadalcanal, the Sogavare government is heralding the delivery of the first of 140 telecommunication towers, which was funded with resources obtained from Exim Bank with the assistance of China.

Other activities include a construction update visit of the China-Aid National Referral Hospital Comprehension Medical Center Project by the caretaker Minister of Health, Dr Culwick Togamana, and the announcement of a Chinese government scholarship program.

The announcement in March 2024 of the feasibility study of the Chinese-built Auki Road project in Malaita Province, the country’s most populous island, is another step in advancing Chinese investment in the country.

This new and shining infrastructure points to the fruitful relationship between the Sogavare government and China. Chinese investors are also entering the mining and forestry sectors.

However, it must be noted that Chinese investments had already been operating in Solomon Islands over a decade before the 2019 diplomatic switch. For example, the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) first entered Solomon Islands in 2015 to build two bridges outside of Honiara funded by the Asia Development Bank (ADB).

The increase in Chinese investment in the country also paved the way for the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China in early 2022. The riots of November 2021, which targeted Chinese shops in Honiara, triggered the security agreement, which facilitated the establishment of a China Police Liaison Team under a cooperative relation between the Solomon Islands Royal Police Force and Ministry of Public Security in China. It was part of the China-Solomons policing cooperation, according to then Chinese Ambassador to Solomon Islands Li Ming.

The Chinese Liaison Team was deployed to the Solomon Islands to train local police on public order management. This deployment also included the donation of water cannon vehicles, motorcycles, protective equipment, as well as food items given as Christmas presents to the families of local police officers in Honiara at the end of 2022.

Sogavare had claimed the November 2021 riots indicated that “security could not be adequately provided through [the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force] and existing security arrangements, despite years of capacity building and other assistance provided under the Australian-funded Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.”

Protecting Chinese investments in Solomon Islands was demonstrated in a “community engagement” by senior Chinese Liaison police officers visiting the Win Win Mining Investment Limited outside Honiara in October 2022. The visit followed the arrest of Win Win Managing Director Dan Shi, a Chinese national, who allegedly threatened local landowners with a replica gun. The matter was settled out of court , and Dan Shi currently serves as one of the directors and shareholders of the mining company. He is also an executive member of the Solomon Islands Chinese Business Council (SCBC), established in 2021 for Chinese entrepreneurs who are influential in the local business sector and politics.

Win Win Mining Investment Limited, whose majority of shareholders are Chinese nationals, was in 2019 caught by Solomon Islands Customs trying to smuggle 1.7 kilograms of pure gold out of the country by one of its mining officers. Then-Minister of Finance and Treasury Harry Kuma told Parliament the attempted gold smuggling and tax evasion by Win Win Mining Investment Limited in 2019 had been settled administratively.

The China relationship has always been at the forefront of political debates within and outside of Solomon Islands.

People turning up during the launching of political parties’ campaigns might just be present for the goodies. Only a handful understand the political party manifestos, while the majority only think of short-term goals of what to feed their families, in an environment that has become dependent on free handouts.

There is a need for increased investment in education, infrastructure development for market access, and trade. Australia must also step up in its public diplomacy becoming visible in its aid and assistance to Solomon Islands.

Australia must not be reactive to Chinese engagements just reflecting the larger geostrategic competition concerns but develop a more public diplomatic approach to soft power through the three important governance institutions, namely the church, state, and traditional customs of each diverse island province.

Australia can engage collaboratively and listen to what Solomon Islanders think should be done to improve their lives in the current political climate so often shaped by the interest of outside players.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.