Australia in the Solomon Islands: messiah or menace?

24 December 2021
Vinil Kumar

Two years ago, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare backed away from the country’s historic ties with Taiwan to establish diplomatic links with China, Australia’s major rival in the South Pacific. Last month, after anti-government protests and rioting in the capital, Honiara, Sogavare was forced to call on Canberra to save his skin. Within hours, the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police were on their way to the Solomons.

The Australian government and the corporate media have presented the protests in Honiara as a rejection of China’s growing influence in the Pacific and an example of Beijing’s de-stabilising presence in the region. This narrative has been pushed by opposition politicians within the Solomon Islands, who point to anti-government protesters rioting in Chinatown and destroying Chinese-owned businesses.

The unrest has also been framed as the product of historical tensions between people from the islands of Malaita, which has maintained links with Taiwan and is the most populous in the country, and Guadalcanal, where the capital and central government are located.

Both these narratives lend themselves to Australia presenting itself as saviour of the Solomon Islands, either from China or its own ethnic divisions. But Australian imperialism cannot solve the problems of the Solomon Islands; in fact, it has created many of them.

The recent unrest is the product of a dispute between the country’s rulers, in which imperialist tensions, foreign aid, provincial rivalries and domestic politics have become intertwined. It is also fuelled by the suffering of people during the pandemic.

For decades, impoverished Pacific Island countries have welcomed foreign aid from a range of countries shopping for influence or political support in the region. In search of international recognition, Taiwan cultivated diplomatic links and provided foreign aid to several small Pacific Island countries, including the Solomon Islands. Sogavare accepted US$500 million in aid from China in 2019, ending the 36-year relationship with Taiwan.

Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani opposed this transition, maintaining informal diplomatic links with Taiwan. Malaita, already one of the most impoverished islands in the Pacific, has since been denied access to Chinese foreign aid by Sogavare’s government.

In October 2020, the United States rewarded Malaita with US$25 million in aid, ten times what it would normally receive in a year. Aligning Malaita with Taiwan, the US, Australia and their allies against China has been fruitful for Suidani, and his anti-China posture has hardened. He banned Chinese investment in the province, fuelling anti-China sentiment within Malaita.

The most recent anti-government protests were called by Malaita for Democracy, an anti-China, pro-US group with ties to the premier. But the protests also attracted Honiara locals angry at the government over economic mismanagement.

The government urged Honiara’s workforce to return to their rural homes when the COVID pandemic shut down tourism and the economy stalled. The social burden of the pandemic was pushed onto strained subsistence farming communities, while Sogavare’s government spent tens of millions subsidising businesses and infrastructure projects.

The government also used emergency powers to suspend the nurses’ union when it took strike action over unpaid pandemic allowances. According to the World Bank, 57 percent of households reduced their food consumption in order to cope.

International news outlet Agence France-Presse reported on 27 November that Honiara residents were joining anti-government demonstrators “to rampage through the shattered glass and burnt-out remains of businesses for things to eat or sell”.

Shortly after the demonstrations began, Scott Morrison announced that Australian troops and federal police were on their way “to support riot control” and to “protect critical infrastructure”. It’s an illustration that while Pacific Island governments in Australia’s sphere of influence might receive aid from rival powers, their own rule and the stability of their domestic economies still depends on political and military support from Canberra.

This deployment has been presented as another episode of Australia benevolently coming to the rescue of its “Pacific family”, just as it supposedly did in 2003 when Australian troops were last sent to the Solomon Islands. Yet, the impoverishment and social crisis in the country today stems from its history of domination by imperialist powers, a history in which Australia has long played a prominent and destructive role.

Of the more than 60,000 people taken as part of Australia’s “blackbirding” slave trade in the Pacific between 1870 and 1911, about 40 percent came from the Solomon Islands. More than 5,000 were taken from Guadalcanal and more than 14,000 were taken from Malaitathe largest number taken from any single island in the Pacific.

During the 1880s, calls within Australia to annex the Solomons accompanied agitation around the annexation of New Guinea. Both island groups were seen as essential to securing Australian interests against Germany, which had established control over parts of both territories.

It was thought that an Australian presence would secure shipping lanes and cheap labour for Queensland plantations. The agitation was a factor in the establishment of British control over part of the Solomon Islands in 1893. Prime Minister Edmund Barton considered direct rule in 1901, as did the Department of Territories in the 1950s.

Despite formal British control, Australian foreign capital and trade dominated the British Solomons. The Australian dollar was legal tender and the main air and shipping connections to the islands were Australian owned. Large swathes of the country had been turned into copra plantations by British and Australian companies and, according to a 1978 report by the United Nations, “practically every able-bodied male over sixteen years of age took turns at plantation work”. The population declined due to a combination of degrading plantation labour, destruction of tribal systems and imported disease.

The Solomon Islands became a site of contestation between the US and Japan during World War Two. The modern capital of Honiara developed around the Henderson airfield, which the US constructed during the war using cheap labour from surrounding islands, displacing the Guale people within Guadalcanal and disrupting subsistence agriculture. Modern disputes over rights to land, ownership and compensation can be traced back to this period. After the Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, its economy became dependent on the plunder of natural resourcesincluding timber, fish and goldby multinationals.

This long-running imperialist and capitalist carve up of the Solomon Islands immiserated the population and created friction between the Guales, who had been displaced from their lands on Guadalcanal, and the Malaitans, who travelled or moved there in search of work.

In 1998, militant groups from Guadalcanal operating under the banner of the Isatabu Freedom Movement carried out the violent expulsion of more than 20,000 Malaitans from the island. The Malaita Eagle Force was formed in response and fighting between the two groups continued until 2004.

These tensions are often evoked to create a picture of a country intractably divided by ethnic and racial tensions, in which countries such as Australia must intervene to keep the peace. But the conflicts did not arise naturally. They arose from the conditions created by global capitalism and from the weaponisation of the divides by politicians in the Solomon Islands.

Australia rejected requests for economic aid in the late 1990s, former Prime Minister John Howard instead demanding the implementation of structural adjustment programs by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which had devastated economies elsewhere. The Howard government spent three years insisting on cuts to social spending, then sent troops to the “failed state” under the banner of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

RAMSI’s priorities during the fourteen-year occupation were never about dealing with the social conditions that created the crisis, but about restoring stability for businesses and foreign investors. The intervention involved more than 2,500 police and soldiers, as well as hundreds of economists and financial advisers.

Tariffs and barriers for investments were reduced. By 2005, foreign investment had risen to 20 percent of GDP, compared to 4.5 percent in 1996. Australian Solomons Gold reacquired the Gold Ridge Mine on Guadalcanal after its previous Australian owners had abandoned it in 2000 due to the tensions.

By contrast, RAMSI intervened to stop a pay rise to public service workers after threats of a strike had forced the government to concede. In 2006, RAMSI was sent to suppress pro-democracy protests in Honiara. This is what good governance in the Solomon Islands looks like, according to Canberra.

Australia’s latest foray into the Solomon Islands can only exacerbate the social crisis engulfing the country. The Morrison government is motivated by a desire to maintain Australia’s control over its informal Pacific empire, against China’s attempts to expand its own power in the region.

There are no virtuous sides in this contest. Beijing, Washington and Canberra care only about the fortunes of their own elites; they care little for the lives of working-class people anywhere. Opposing this self-serving rampage through the region is an essential act of solidarity with workers across the Pacific.

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