Geo-Political battle in the South Pacific hots up | Daily News

Geo-Political battle in the South Pacific hots up

Australian Prime Minister  Scott Morrison-Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison-Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare

China will be sending a number of Police officers along with riot-control gear such as shields and helmets for the Solomon Islands Police, to help train the local police to stem any more violence against Chinese interests and their citizens in the South Pacific Nation.

The announcement on Christmas Eve by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s besieged Government that it would accept Beijing’s offer of assistance to strengthen its anti-riot policing capabilities has created shockwaves in Canberra.

When anti-China riots broke out in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara in late November last year, the pro-China Sogavare asked for Australian assistance to help control the rioting which was threatening to bring down his Government, under a security treaty Honiara signed with Canberra in 2017.

Australia has been the policeman of the South Pacific for decades using its aid budget as the carrot. But now China is threatening to take over that role.

In November, though Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied it, Australia’s prompt response to Sogavare’s request and dispatching of Australian Federal Police (AFP) officials and troops within hours was believed to have been influenced by the fear of Solomon Islands asking China for police assistance, if Australia refused.

Chinese assistance

It appears that Sogavare has cunningly outsmarted Morrison as the announcement was made about Chinese assistance as Australian Police and troops were winding down their mission and returning home. In November Australia sent 73 AFP and 43 Australian Defence Force personnel to Honiara.

The Solomon Islands Government said in a statement last month, it was “mindful of the urgent need to strengthen Royal Solomon Islands Police Force capability and capacity to respond to future unrest” and the Government has agreed to accept the Peoples’ Republic of China’s (PRC) offer of riot equipment and six Police Liaison Officers “to equip and train Royal Solomon Islands Police Force with the skill sets complimenting ongoing training received under existing bilateral assistance (of Australia)”.

Cleo Paskal, a Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) writing in India’s Sunday Guardian notes that it took only around two years for some smart PRC team “to move it (Solomon Islands) from a country that recognized Taiwan to one that not only recognizes China but—thanks in part to a deft outmanoeuvering of Australia—was welcoming Chinese Police advisors” to help put down those in the country protesting against pro-PRC Prime Minister Sogavare.

Paskal notes that China played its cards well. The first step was setting up the groundwork. Even though Solomon Islands recognized Taiwan, the PRC maintained a consistent presence in the country, fronted by the business sector. It actively courted decision-makers, gathered intelligence, and identified resistance.

Though some in the country had expressed concern about its tilt towards Beijing, “Washington was reliant on advice from Australia, which had led a peacekeeping mission in the country from 2003-2017. However, either Canberra was not aware of how close the country was to switching or did not think it was an issue of concern,” Paskal points out.

The next step was consolidation, once the switch from Taiwan to China was announced in September 2019, Paskal explains that Beijing moved quickly to try to embed itself before there could be any serious response. This included an attempt by a Chinese state-owned company to lease an entire island with a deep-water port within days of the switch.

The effort failed, largely because of local opposition. “But PRC efforts continued and were relentless, focused and well-funded. Loyal politicians and business leaders were rewarded, and those standing in the way of PRC political or economic influence were targeted,” she notes.

Paskal believes that by sending in the Police and Army troops to restore order, Australia saved Sogaware at a time even the Police were asking him to resign. As she points out further, with the arrival of the Australians, he could turn to those MPs and say “see, I am backed by both the Chinese and the Australians—are you sure you want to go up against me?” They saved him.

Illegal or violent acts

Spokesperson Zhao Lijian of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in making the statement on Chinese Police deployment: “China stands firmly in support of the Government of the Solomon Islands to sustain domestic stability, in safeguarding the China-Solomon relations and in protecting the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese people there. China strongly condemns any illegal or violent acts.”

China’s Global Times reported on December 23, 2021 quoting a Chinese businessman in Honiara that the situation there has cooled down in recent weeks with “foreign troops patrolling the areas and giving anti-riot training to the Police force.” And Chinese businesses have reopened though their “loses were incredibly large”.

While Chinese Police are due to arrive in Honiara, the Global Times said that a chartered flight is expected to take Chinese nationals back to China, and the elderly will be given priority. One Chinese businessman has complained though she was told that the local Government will provide compensation, she is yet to receive it.

The Solomon Islands has a long history of tension between militant groups from two ethnically diverse islander groups—the people from Guadalcanal Island (where Honiara is located) and the nearby island of Malaita (whose Premier Daniel Suidani is pro-Taiwan and last year received medical treatment in Taipei).

In 2003, the Solomon Islands Government asked for military help from neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, to stem violence between the two groups.

Known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) saw Australia, New Zealand and 13 other Pacific countries send help to stabilize the island nation. Australia spent an estimated A$ 2.8 billion (US$ 2 billion) on the 13-year mission, contributing 7,200 soldiers and 1,700 AFP officers to the effort. This time, though it is the same tension that is being exploited, it is embroiled in geo-political developments in the region between China and Western powers, with Taiwan in the boil.

In an opinion piece published by Canberra Times, Australian development studies academics Professors Matthew Clarke and Simon Feeny argue that Australian Police would not completely withdraw from Honiara until the Chinese do the same. They expect another long deployment.

“Australia’s influence in the region is not something it will willingly cede, but nor is it something it can expect not to be challenged by others with similar goals,” they argue. “As such, it would be reasonable to expect the Australian Forces who arrived in the Solomon Islands one month ago to not only be there longer than we might have initially expected but potentially also continue growing in numbers.”

[IDN-InDepthNews]

 


Add new comment