Tensions between China and Australia over the Solomon Islands are high, but it is in everyone’s interest to ease them | Tania Miletic and Anouk Ride
OLast month, tensions between China, Australia and the Solomon Islands escalated dramatically over the Pacific nation’s draft security agreement with China, which some fear China could establish a military base in the Solomon Islands.
There were heated words from all quarters, with China hinting that Australia is encouraging US-led competition in the region; Australia expresses concerns about what a Chinese military base could mean for Australia’s national security, implying that the Pacific Islands are its domain of control; and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who declared that other countries did not respect his sovereignty and called Solomon Islands critics of the treaty “maniacs,” shows the scale of the conflict and potential escalation.
But the escalation of rhetoric and tensions in the Pacific runs counter to the interests of all parties involved, and these positions hide the mutual interest of all sides in stability in the Pacific region.
China would lose face and face several risks from a hasty enlistment in the Solomon Islands armed forces. During last November’s riots, most of the burned buildings housed Chinese-run businesses. The arrival of a Chinese military presence on the islands could create further risks of violence and sabotage against Chinese armed personnel and Chinese residents.
There is a sharp division within Solomon Islands over support for China. The prime minister of the country’s largest province, Malaita, has expressed anger at the national government’s decision to switch allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, and the anger at the prime minister’s failure to listen to those concerns is believed to be outweighed has, at least in part, been responsible for the riots over the past year. Malaita has said it does not want Chinese companies to be contracted by the provincial government and has called the switch to ties with China a threat to democracy. If Solomon Islands politicians ignore this, it could escalate conflict between provincial and national governments and spark new movements to split the country into small states.
Australian politicians are likely to be responsible for failures in Solomon Islands security, as will the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police if the country goes into conflict.
How can all sides come out of this rapid conflict escalation? First, China and Australia should reconsider supplying firearms and other weapons to the Solomon Islands Police.
China recently sent replica weapons to Solomon Islands police for training, raising questions about intentions to supply real weapons in the future. Australian Federal Police support includes arming police with guns.
There is a high risk that these weapons will end up in the hands of private rather than state actors, that state actors will use these weapons against civilians, that people will resist armed officers, and that the police will not be able to control their assets. Police support for the militants and the procurement of weapons was a major reason for physical violence in the previous 1998-2003 civil war, and certain sectors such as Parliament are already saying they do not want weapons in their sphere.
Second, all actors must be reminded that equating forces and weapons is certainly at odds with the Pacific way of conflict resolution. This Pacific route involved traditional conflict resolution through the use of chiefs, churches, and civil society leaders as mediators and sources of pressure on local men perpetrating violence.
Third, the search for constructive solutions must evolve from a more informed conflict analysis involving experts and governmental and non-governmental security actors in the Solomon Islands. A similar process is required at the regional level to understand the multifaceted and complex dynamics at play and the differing views on them. There is an opportunity to pause, reflect and talk.
Fourth, Australia’s peace-building capability requires rebalancing military, intelligence and economic imperatives through diplomacy and assistance. While it is true that Australian aid to the Pacific has been significant, little is being used for conflict prevention and the ratio of defense spending to aid is now 12:1. There is a persistent Australian neglect of climate action that is already being criticized across the Pacific.
From what has been allocated, spending could also be smarter, for example there is $65 million in this year’s budget for a new complex for the Australian High Commission in Honiara. This is boomerang aid that employs and spends Australian staff rather than using local capacity; Construction of a building for Australian staff instead of more urgent needs like the National Hospital which was flooded last week and is in disrepair.
It demonstrates the centralization of aid to city capitals and Australian aid’s reluctance to invest in sub-national governance such as B. Provincial government services and local civil society. This will increase Pacific complaints about the aid program.
Given Australia’s challenging level of low trust and influence in the Pacific, a rethink of how best to ‘move up’ is needed. In our dialogues with stakeholders in China, the Pacific and the Solomon Islands, we have heard repeatedly that listening closely would help Australia better respond to security concerns. With a better understanding of the immediate and pressing realities facing its Pacific neighbors, Australia could restore and maintain confidence in Australia as a responsible actor, key partner and collaborator to achieve the interconnected goals of more secure, economic and geostrategic to achieve goals.
dr Tania Miletic is Associate Director of the Initiative for Peacebuilding at the University of Melbourne and Dr. Anouk Ride is Associate Researcher at the Initiative for Peacebuilding at the University of Melbourne, based in the Solomon Islands.