In the Solomon Islands, Australia’s largesse in the face of a challenge from China | Poverty and development

When the Solomon Islands, an impoverished country 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Australia, announced the drafting of a new security agreement with China late last month, officials Australians have warned that the move could jeopardize security in the South Pacific and manifest the long-feared Chinese military base in its backyard.

As the region’s largest aid donor – Australia spent a record A$1.7 billion ($1.3 billion) in development aid in the South Pacific last year, as well that additional billions for security, health, logistics and telecommunications in the Solomon Islands – Canberra could have imposed economic sanctions to pressure Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to rethink the deal .

Instead, Australia increased its largesse, promising a second patrol boat and outpost, 65 million Australian dollars ($49 million) for a new embassy and 22 million Australian dollars ($16.5 million dollars) for government salaries and an integrated radio for police, health and disaster management. network across the archipelago, which is home to around 700,000 people.

But as Australia seeks to reassert its influence, Canberra’s recent rude awakening raises tough questions about the limits of its ability to check China’s growing influence in the Pacific by flooding its neighbors with cash.

“When there was large-scale civil unrest in the capital, Honiara, last year, Australia deployed security personnel within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Solomon Islands and other countries in the region have followed suit,” said Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat. in the Solomon Islands and a researcher at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“But the new deal potentially gives expanded scope to Chinese military personnel, assets and armed police. This shows two things: there are security gaps in the Solomon Islands that Australia simply cannot fill, and this aid will not buy Australian exclusivity even if China was able to impose exclusivity Sora added, referring to a 2019 decision by Honiara to terminate 36 years of foreign relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

Checkbook Diplomacy

Despite Beijing’s growing entrenchment, Chinese aid to the region has dwindled since 2018, while Chinese lending that Western officials say could lead to unusable debt has grown by leaps and bounds, now totaling $1 billion. .

Some critics have accused Beijing of resorting to checkbook diplomacy, through which large sums of money are allegedly funneled to political parties and actors.

Taiwanese media reported that China offered the Solomon Islands $500 million for cutting ties with the self-governing islands, which Beijing considers part of its territory, although the figure has not been officially confirmed. But Deputy Opposition Leader Peter Kenilorea says individual members of parliament also received 250,000 to 750,000 Australian dollars each for their votes.

When a no-confidence motion was tabled in parliament last year after police used rubber bullets to disperse protesters who looted and burned down Chinese-owned businesses, Beijing gave MPs A$40,000 to vote against the motion, according to a number of opponents. personalities including Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, a political adviser from the province of Malaita, the most populous province.

The Sogavare government dismissed the corruption allegations as groundless, questioning whether the allegations were aimed at discrediting it “for the purpose of justifying criminal actions and political hooliganism”. He also insisted that he would not allow a Chinese military base in the country.

Beijing has denied any intention to establish a military base in the archipelago.

“The purpose of security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands is to protect people’s life and property safety and has no military connotation,” the Chinese Ministry of Affairs spokesperson said. foreign Zhao Lijian at a press briefing last month. “The relevant remarks and speculation in the media are baseless and ill-intentioned.”

“Australia is not losing influence to China in the Solomons; the average person on the street has a positive attitude towards Australians because they are the people who help us while anti-Chinese feelings are very strong due to the destructive Chinese logging and fishing mining practices which have caused a massive environmental destruction, Talifilu, who advises Malaita Prime Minister Daniel Suidani, told Al Jazeera.

“But Australia is losing influence in the current government because Australian aid is transparent while Chinese aid goes straight into their pockets.”

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a senator from the Australian state of New South Wales who served as Minister for International Development and the Pacific between 2016 and 2018, believes the allegations are true.

“There is a growing suspicion of Beijing’s influence over the Solomon Islands’ political class,” Fierravanti-Wells told Al Jazeera, adding that China’s actions in the South China Sea and the US trap diplomacy the debt “give an indication of the insidious nature of Beijing’s intention”.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare transferred diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, arguing the move would bring economic benefits to his country. [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

While the Sogavare administration has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, some analysts also believe it is too simplistic to attribute Honiara’s pivot to Beijing to checkbook diplomacy.

“Prime Minister Sogavare explained the switch from Taiwan to China on the grounds that he expects the country to have more business opportunities from China than from Taiwan, and there is something in that idea. that China has offered a compelling narrative of economic development,” Sora said. , the former Australian diplomat, based in Honiara.

“The Solomons also support Sogavare’s view that the country should not be beholden to a single security partner like Australia and is seeking to expand bilateral relations overseas.”

Michael O’Keefe, senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, expressed similar sentiments.

“From the Solomon Islands’ perspective, they see that decades of Australian aid has not produced the security results they hoped for,” O’Keefe told Al Jazeera. “So there are questions about the effectiveness of the Australian approach and they are looking at other options.

“And from China’s perspective, well, the United States is protecting its citizens overseas and when China sees its nationals and its investments in the Solomons being threatened, why shouldn’t China step in? ” O’Keefe added.

New thinking

For Australia, strengthening its position vis-à-vis China could require a change of mentality, according to some observers.

Talifilu said Canberra should redirect aid from official channels to local projects.

“Instead of sending huge sums of money to the national government to build infrastructure like wharves that don’t help ordinary people, they should study how Americans are delivering aid in the Pacific,” he said. -he declares.

“They recently announced $25 million in funding to Malaita Province for a project called SCALE which will engage NGOs and private companies to research new ways to provide capital for agriculture, forestry and fisheries to improve livelihoods. If Australia did the same, it would allow more people to vote for the opposition, which is pro-Taiwan and pro-Australia.

O’Keefe offers an entirely different solution.

“Australia could consider working with China to meet the Solomons’ security needs rather than just presenting this pact as another Chinese threat,” he said. “It’s actually an opportunity for Australian police to work with their Chinese counterparts, which Australia is already doing with American, New Zealand and Fijian security personnel in the South Pacific.

“But to do that,” he added, “Canberra would have to reset its default mindset that sees every move China makes in the South Pacific as a threat.”

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