Friday, December 31, 2021

Solomon Islands 2021: Crisis of Neo-Colonialism

 Written by: (Contributed) on 31 December 2021

In late November, Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands experienced three days of extensive rioting targeted upon strategic areas including the official residence of the Prime Minister, a Police Station and Chinatown.

The country's small defence and security provision with their police were clearly outnumbered: the response from Australia was also immediate, followed by other countries. While Honiara has returned to relative stability, the situation remains tense with serious underlying problems: the Solomon Islands has a relatively small and weak economy, heavily dependent upon foreign aid and assistance, marked by neo-colonial diplomatic and economic relations.

On 24 November groups of Malaitians marched on Honiara, following a number of grievances which included the country switching diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in September, 2019, and a declining economy causing greater hardship. The political situation had also been inflamed with separatist calls for independence of Malaita from the rest of the country.

The Solomon Islands is composed of six major islands and a further nine hundred smaller landmasses with a population of about 652,858. The country is also faced with a rising population together with relative economic decline. The population totals in 2010, at 555,453, are set to rise to 746,412 by 2025. (1) Economically, the country is faced with serious problems which include a decline in annual GDP growth rates from around six per cent in the period before independence in the 1960s to about minus four per cent last year. (2) While year by year totals show many erratic peaks and troughs, the general trend is decidedly downward; there has been little, if any, sustainable economic development for decades. A sudden peak of about 12.5 per cent GDP growth in the early 1990s, for example, fell away as quickly as it had arisen. (3)  

Internationally, the Solomon Islands economy is, therefore, minute: its total GDP in 2020 was $1.55 billion, amounting to less than 0.01 per cent of the global economy; three-quarters of the population live by subsistence agriculture and fishing with a per capita GDP income of about $600 per annum, which amounts to about $11-12 per person per week. (4) The rapidly rising population is living in a smaller and smaller economy; financial hardship is a common problem. Economic problems have been played-out in the political forums at provincial and national levels.

While the population are overwhelmingly Melanesian, they are sub-divided into many ethnic minorities. The two main ethnic groups, Malaitains and Guadacanalese, have long-standing rivalries. While the Malaitians are the biggest ethnic group with 168,000 population, for example, the capital Honiara is on the island of Guadacanal. (5) Hostilities between the two ethnic groups about twenty years ago resulted in a long-term western intervention to stabilise the country. The most recent disturbances, however, appear to date specifically from September, 2019, when the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China, following 36 years of strong links with Taipei. At an official level it was diplomatically noted that in 36 years, the Solomon Islands 'has received considerable financial support from Taiwan'. (6)

Both China and Taiwan are major diplomatic players in the Pacific region; they use different styles of aid provision. Chinese diplomacy, for example, is invariably conducted through official government channels. Taiwan's, however, is usually conducted through dominant local figures and strongly localised patronage systems. A recent official statement from Malaitian Premier Daniel Suidani would appear to have clarified a great deal about the present situation when he stressed while Taiwan had been generous with diplomatic aid, 'some major developments in the country', did not take place due to problems with previous political leaders. (7) No reference was made to corruption although it was implicit that aid money had not been used in the usual manner for economic development programs.

Following the diplomatic switch to China the situation on Malaita would appear to have become tense; it is not particularly difficult to establish outside forces manipulating problems. In 2020, Taiwan and the US sent $25 million to Malaita which was accompanied with political demands for independence of the island from the Solomon Islands. (8) In September, 2020, Malaitian Premier Daniel Suidana, issued the demand for independence, outlining four criteria to support the move: the island had a defined territory, a permanent population, a government and a capacity for diplomacy with restoration of links with Taiwan. (9) It was accompanied with references to a Malaitian leaders' summit where 'delegates adopted a resolution calling for the province to break away from the Solomon Islands'. (10)

The present situation in Malaita would appear increasingly divided: while Suidana is pushing for the provincial government to conduct a survey 'regarding Malaita self-autonomy status', his deputy-premier, Manasseh Maelanga, has stated 'independence is not my agenda'. (11) The results of the survey are expected early 2022 and are likely to be highly divisive, not only in Malaita but across the whole country and possibly, the wider region.

The arrival of groups of Malaitains into Honiara last November was taken to influence political decision-makers in the federal parliament about long-standing and more recent grievances. The rioting that followed was met with a quick response from Australia which provided 73 Federal Police and 43 military personnel the following day. They were soon accompanied by similar support from New Zealand, PNG and Fiji. As dominant regional players, they feared political disorder spilling over into neighbouring areas of the Solomon Islands and elsewhere across the South Pacific. It was not coincidental that PNG military personnel were used to stabilise the situation: a recent poll on Bougainville saw the vast majority of those on the island vote for autonomy or independence from PNG. The matter is scheduled to be officially dealt with in their national parliament in 2022. The political decision is likely to have far-reaching implications, whatever the outcome.

The sins of the father continue to linger, with lasting implications: Australian colonial administrations, in the lead-up to independence for a number of Pacific countries, grouped smaller islands and land-masses into larger countries due to political expedience. The people of Bougainville, for example, regard themselves as ethnic Solomon Islanders not Papua New Guineans. The colonial administrations, furthermore, foisted spurious economic models and development programs upon countries to serve external, corporate interests.

Across the Pacific, islanders have seen their countries, islands and smaller land-masses literally handed over to mining companies, many of which remain registered in Australia. Despite huge levels of mineral extraction, most islanders have seen little, if any, benefit, for themselves, their families and communities. Huge dividends, however, continue to be paid to shareholders who have no interest in sustainable economic development.
It is important to note relative stability was soon achieved across Honiara and Sogavara easily survived a no-confidence vote in the national parliament in early December. He used the occasion to make an official statement accusing 'agents of Taiwan' for an attempted destabilisation of his government. (12) The curfew across Honiara, Legal Notice 359, was subsequently repealed by the Governor-General on 9 December. (13)   

The matter, however, is far from resolved; in fact, it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future with serious implications for Australia. It is, therefore, not difficult to establish the position of the present Australian government and their adherence to US-led Cold War regional foreign policy and 'US interests'; they continue to carry all the hallmarks of neo-colonial relations which they want to preserve, in particular for Australian-based corporate business organisations. A recent highly critical statement from Canberra, for example, concluded with the lines: 'Sogavara will continue to lead his country to the brink of disaster by building ties with Beijing … Australia will have no intention of allowing a Chinese proxy to emerge in the Coral Sea'. (13)

It is important to note while the Solomon Islands have their own defence and security provision they generally rely upon Australian-based intelligence facilities which are then over-ridden by larger capacity US facilities also based in Australia. Two final factors arose which throw considerable light upon the manner in which decision makers in Canberra have monitored recent developments in the Solomon Islands: the timing of the march by Malaitians on Honiara and the rioting that took place together with the rapid response from Australia, followed by it being recorded that about forty per cent of all foreign arrivals in the country were Chinese and the later condemnation following China's offer to train local police with six liaison officers and their supplying of 'riot equipment'. (14) 

Those who continue to complain about China's diplomatic initiatives in the South Pacific, including politicians from both the Coalition and Labor, and many in the media, generally do so from a position of subservience and loyalty to US imperialism. 

Every country, big or small, has the right to independence from all foreign interference and control. might like to consider the fact the Solomon Islands are a sovereign country as ratified by the United Nations; decision-makers in Canberra should take note!

 We need an independent foreign policy, in our own right, and as a guarantee that Australia will not engage in foreign interference on behalf of US imperialism!

1.     Projected Population, Solomon Islands Statistics Office.
2.     GDP  Growth – Annual % - World Bank; and, Trading Economics, GDP Growth, Solomon Islands.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Ibid., and, Wikipedia: The Solomon Islands.
5.     Call for independence, PAC News / Solomon Times, 11 December 2021.
6.     China extends influence in the Pacific, The Guardian (U.K.), 16 September 2019.  
7.     Suidana says MARA stand for Malaita issues not Taiwan, The Solomon Star, 9 December 2021.
8.     Wikipedia: Rioting – The Solomon Islands.
9.     'Malaita has it all' / Why Suidana is pushing for independence vote, IslandSun (On-line), 8 September 2020.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Maelanga speaks, The Solomon Star, 10 December 2021; and, Call for independence dividing Malaita province of Solomon Islands, One PNG., 11 December 2021.
12.   Solomon Islands Prime Minister survives no confidence vote, The Guardian (U.K.), 6 December 2021.           
13.   Curfew lifted, The Solomon Star, 10 December 2021.
13.   A new year, and fresh turmoil in world order, Australian, 30 December 2021.
14.   Solomon Islands National Statistics Office: Press Release, International Arrivals, 26 October 2021; and, Solomon Islands accepts Chinese offer for riot police help, ABC News, 24 December 2021.   

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