Solomon Islands unrest jolts Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’

The great geopolitical competition of the twenty-first century is raging on Australia’s doorstep.

The Solomon Islands’ decision in 2019 to stop formal diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and switch to China is one of several factors that are blamed for riots in the capital, Honiara.

Previously, the Solomon Islands were among a few countries that had ties with Taipei rather than Beijing.

Concerns about service provision, corruption, and shifting official relations from Taipei to Beijing have helped fuel discontent in the impoverished Pacific nation.

What started as a peaceful protest by people primarily from Malaita province turned violent on Wednesday as a crowd of around 1,000 people grew agitated.

Troops are expected to be deployed to the Solomon Islands for several weeks.(ABC News: Christina Umano Leung)

Malaita Provincial Premier, Daniel Suidani, has been vocal in his opposition to the national government’s decision to support China rather than Taiwan.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari blames “external factors” for the unrest in his country, and says the riots are “an unfortunate and unfortunate event, aimed at bringing down a democratically elected government”.

In Australia, violent scenes are closely monitored by government officials and intelligence agencies, who are relieved that the first request for help has been made in Canberra, rather than Beijing.

Late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed suggestions that Australia’s rapid response to the emergency unfolding in the Solomon Islands had anything to do with broader geopolitical factors.

“Australia’s response is under the treaty that we have with the Solomon Islands and this is with the people of the Solomon Islands – that is, between two governments, and it exists regardless of who runs either of those governments,” the prime minister told reporters.

“We seek not to get involved in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands but simply to ensure that any issues they have can be addressed in a calm and peaceful manner.”

Ramsey Soldiers on a OK Patrol
The Australians were previously in the Solomon Islands as part of a peacekeeping mission.(Lloyd-Jones: AAP Photo)

The dramatic events in Honiara highlight deep concerns within the Australian government about China’s growing influence in the Pacific.

Since 2016, the federal government has tried to counter Beijing’s presence with a “Pacific Step-Up” programme, but many commentators have warned Australia it is losing crucial ground during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, Australia agreed to bill for a new high-speed internet cable between Australia and the Solomon Islands over concerns that The Chinese state-owned company Huawei will build the project.

Four years after the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) ended, more than 40 members of the Australian Defense Forces are making their way back into the troubled nation, along with Australian Federal Police officers.

This time around, Australian officials hope they can help restore law and order long before any help from Beijing is requested or sent.


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