Australian and U.S. leaders should stop appealing to the Solomon Islands prime minister to change his mind on a contentious security deal with Beijing that could pave the way for militarisation of the region.
Instead, one expert on the South Pacific says the focus should be on engaging with stakeholders interested in democracy and weakening ties with China.
“The Solomon Islands has a wide and deep array of honest and dedicated leaders, including provincial premiers, members of Parliament, chiefs, faith leaders, women’s group leaders and more—many of whom have come out, on the record, as against the deal with China,” said Cleo Paskal, associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Programme at the London-based Chatham House.
Paskal described Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's government as a “crusty layer” of corruption attempting to block outside engagement with the country.
“It is that corrupt and unpopular layer that Canberra [and Washington D.C.] has prioritised for engagement,” she said. “Rather than meet with leaders who are likeminded—who believe in democracy, transparency, accountability rule of law—leaders continue to meet publicly almost exclusively with Sogavare and his coterie, in the process making Sogavare even more important and powerful.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised for the Beijing deal, with the federal opposition claiming the incumbent centre-right Coalition government dropped the ball on aid funding and action on climate change.
“The government should have acted sooner. We live in a world where the strategic circumstances we face are riskier and more uncertain than in any time since the end of World War II,” Penny Wong, the Labor foreign spokesperson, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on April 20.
However, Paskal said competing with Beijing on aid would be fruitless, and that the security deal was not between China and the Solomon Islands, it was instead, between the CCP and Sogavare.
“If free and fair elections are held on schedule in 2023, it is likely a new government will come in and cancel the deal—and maybe even switch back to Taiwan,” she said. “Imagine what that will do to Xi’s credibility in China? His domestic enemies will say he can’t even hold on to a small pacific country—it will be a huge loss of face.”
“Neither can afford to back down. That’s why Australia and the United States putting their eggs in the Sogavare basket will only end up in an omelet eaten by Beijing. “