Solomon Islands PM Manele’s Foreign Visits: More Than a Mere Balancing Act

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Solomon Islands PM Manele’s Foreign Visits: More Than a Mere Balancing Act

Jeremiah Manele’s visits to Australia and China highlight his pressing domestic challenges – and outside powers’ longstanding policy failures toward the region.

Solomon Islands PM Manele’s Foreign Visits: More Than a Mere Balancing Act

Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi talk during a ceremony to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Solomon Islands and China at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Sept. 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool, File

Caught in the eye of a geopolitical storm, the Solomon Islands is back in the news, this time over newly elected Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele’s first foreign visits since taking office in May. Manele, who took off for Australia in late June, is set to visit China this week, followed by a trip to Japan. 

Manele’s choice to visit  Canberra before Beijing elevated hopes held by many that the “more diplomatic” leader values rebalancing Honiara’s foreign policy which tipped in favor of Beijing under his predecessor, Prime Minister Sogavare, labelled as a “Master of Mayhem” and “China’s Man in the Pacific.

So far the trip to neighboring Australia and a visit by New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters to Solomon Islands have proved beneficial for the new prime minister, who came to power promising to create jobs, develop infrastructure, and rebuild an economy that has struggled to recover from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have New Zealand and Australia promised to build a one kilometer-long runway at the Seghe airfield, but Manele has also secured agreements for security cooperation and economic development with Canberra, even as he sticks to a decision to review the security arrangement with Australia. 

The joint statement between Manele and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the two nations as a “family with interconnected futures” that reflects an “equitable and enduring partnership,” with Canberra being Honiara’s “partner of choice.” 

The overall picture, however, does not appear as rosy. Despite calling Australia and New Zealand  his “Pacific Islands Forum family,” Manele did not shy away from noting, “Geography has put us in this situation, whether we like it or not.”

Manele’s blunt remarks leave no doubt that he intends to continue with his predecessor’s policy of maintaining close ties with Beijing, albeit with more pragmatism, resulting in a “friend to all and enemy to none” foreign policy. The current prime minister served as Honiara’s foreign minister when the island nation switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 and played a major role in facilitating the signing of a secretive security pact with Beijing in March 2022 that raised anxieties in Washington and among its allies.

A leaked document of the security pact reportedly claimed that it provides the Chinese navy access to Honiara’s ports. Then-Prime Minister Sogavare not only denied the claims but even lashed out at similar criticisms leveled by Australia and the United States as “un-neighborly” and “interference” in Honiara’s internal affairs. The “comprehensive strategic partnership” forged with China during Sogavare’s tenure however has seen greater cooperation in diverse areas including food security, climate change, police training and infrastructural development under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

This has caused Washington and its allies to step up cooperation with the Pacific Islands through greater aid and investment packages. However, such efforts have failed to win over the Solomon Islands. Sogavare not only criticized Australia for not consulting Honiara over the AUKUS deal but has also been a vocal critic of Japan’s decision to release wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, claiming it to be a major health hazard and a violation of international treaties on nuclear safety. Solomon Islands similarly objected to Seoul’s mention of its Indo-Pacific Strategy in the joint statement issued at the 2022 South Korea-Pacific Islands leaders’ meeting held in Fiji. Sogavare also criticized Australia and Honiara’s other traditional aid providers for withdrawing and delaying promised aid packages, a claim denied by Canberra and others. 

Many, including former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, pointed to the “remarkable similarities” between Honiara’s statements and those emanating from Beijing, blaming Sogavare for “parroting” China’s talking points. However, criticizing individuals is a wasteful activity, for it glosses over the real issue that keeps sending the Solomon Islands knocking on many doors, not just Beijing’s. 

The immediate answer for why Honiara seeks out many partners can be located in the country’s  internal challenges, particularly the fragile state of the economy. 

Decades of unsustainable resource extraction under colonialism have not only caused grave environmental damage but has also depleted the country’s resource base, placing Honiara among the least developed countries in the world, with its graduation year delayed from 2024 to 2027. This is particularly true for the logging sector which formed 11 percent of GDP in 2021. While most local small actors in the industry were driven out during the pandemic, large foreign-owned companies (most of which operate illegally) have further ventured into unsustainable mining with the help of the state. 

Another major issue is climate change, which does not just threaten displacement but has also severely hampered food productivity, leading to rising prices and hence a preference for cheaper imported food that has resulted in the triple burden of malnutrition. Placed second among nations at the highest disaster risk, climate change induced migration in the Solomon Islands is likely to exacerbate existing ethnic tensions, further weakening the social fabric causing additional losses in productivity and foreign investment opportunities. Health infrastructure too is extremely poor, with half of the expenditure being met through donations. Unemployment remains another major issue which is also being addressed through external developmental partnerships. 

These circumstances are why lucrative aid and investment packages from Beijing, despite stern political opposition, are much sought after, especially when aid from traditional allies remains elusive or insufficient. Similar conditions exist in other Pacific Island nations such as Nauru and Kiribati, which have sought closer ties with Beijing, resulting in breaking off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. 

Furthermore, many of the criticisms leveled by Honiara are shared by others in the region, pointing to failures in the policy approaches from the country’s traditional allies. While expressing concerns over the threat of “indebtedness” from Beijing’s investments, a leaked document penned by Tonga’s foreign ministry officials in 2022 called out “frantic,” “condescending rhetoric” from Australia and New Zealand over Honiara’s security pact with China, which they claimed revealed that the two nations are “far removed from Pacific realities.”

Kiribati’s President Tabeti Maamau also criticized Australia and the United States for not consulting regional countries on the AUKUS deal. Niue, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the French territory of New Caledonia share Honiara’s concerns over the Fukushima nuclear wastewater issue. Protests against insufficient compensation from the United States and France over their past use of Pacific Islands as nuclear testing sites stand testimony to the long-entrenched problems. Such trends also reflect on the internal weakness of the Pacific Islands Forum which, despite concerted efforts, has fallen short of safeguarding the foundational ideal of promoting regionalism as Pacific unity stands threatened in the face of external challenges. 

Beijing’s presence at most widens cracks that had already been present due to not one but many deeply entrenched issues that have received little attention. 

Meanwhile, the unfolding competition between rival powers for infrastructural projects might cause further environmental degradation as Pacific Island governments, hard-pressed for resources, flout environmental regulations to clinch lucrative deals. This might further aggravate the climate crisis. By 2016, five small islands had been lost to the rising sea and more have had their coasts significantly eroded. 

Cooperation on all sides is urgently required specifically as previous climate agreements have “thrown Pacific under the bus” by prioritizing the maintenance of political divides between Washington’s and Beijing’s allies over seeking collaboration. Despite the intensifying strategic rivalry, joint efforts at combating climate change are both possible and of utmost importance. This can be furthered by stepping up green aid and transfer of clean technology at subsidized rates that focuses on building a climate resilient economy immune to any external influence. Moreover, China’s successful experiences in addressing water scarcity in agriculture and sustainable fuel production can be of great benefit. 

As for Manele’s visits, behind perceptions of a shrewd balancing act between the great powers lies desperate calls from a nation struggling to survive.