Inside the Solomon Islands switch

Source: The Guardian (12/7/19)
When China came calling: inside the Solomon Islands switch
The Pacific nation’s decision to sever ties with Taiwan reverberated around the world and has had far-reaching consequences inside the country
by  in Honiara

Children swim in the Nggela islands, part of the Solomon Islands, which in September made the decision to sever ties with Taiwan and recognise China. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

The market in Auki is a hive of activity. Fisherman offer fresh yellowfin tuna, mackerel and parrot fish, swatting away flies with banana leaves. Stalls are coloured by tropical fruits and the floral dresses of Solomon Islands women who have arrived from villages to sell their produce.

Some of the best produce found in the market, which is located in the capital of the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, comes from Adaliua Taiwanese Farm, situated three kilometres away. There, plump pawpaw and watermelon grow, surrounded by coconut palms. When the Guardian visits, one man uses his machete to slice a pineapple, using banana leaves as a plate to share the fruit.

But the future of the farm and the jobs it creates was thrown into doubt overnight in September when Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands announced Honiara would end its 36-year relationship with Taiwan, and officially recognise Beijing.

A few weeks later Sogavare received a warm welcome in Beijing, returning to the Solomons having signed five memoranda of understanding, including an agreement for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and having secured a promise from China to build a multi-million dollar stadium in the country. Chinese companies were also granted the right to build infrastructure, roads, bridges and power in order to revive Gold Ridge, once Solomon Islands’ most lucrative goldmine; and a Chinese company attempted to lease the entire Solomons’ island of Tulagi.

In Auki market on the independently-minded island of Malaita, market-sellers insist that they don’t want China.

In Auki market on the independently-minded island of Malaita, market-sellers insist that they don’t want China. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

The decision to switch allegiances to China sent ripples around the world. It incensed US senators, outraged the Taiwanese, influenced Kiribati to also abandon Taiwan less than two weeks later, and caused headaches for Australia at a time when Beijing’s influence in the Pacific appears to be expanding. Now, just 15 countries recognise Taiwan.

Professor Matthew Clarke of Deakin University says the Solomon Islands’ recognition of Beijing is an important step for China in completing its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-trillion dollar initiative that aims to direct global trade through mainland China.

“The Pacific is an important region in terms of maritime movements … being able to utilise ports for both commercial and presumedly military purposes is important to China,” he says.

But the decision has not unfolded smoothly. In the weeks following, four cabinet members who didn’t back the move were sacked and one more resigned. A Christian nation of 600,000 people that lies 1,800km east of northern Australia, many Solomon Islanders fear China’s oppression of religious minorities is incongruous with their way of life. Some worry Honiara’s institutions are incapable of dealing with the world’s largest nation. Others lament the exit of Taiwan, a friend which stuck with Solomon Islands, even during its civil war.

For many, the impact of the change is direct and personal.

John Oka sells botera, a local yellow-skinned fruit, from a modest stall in Auki.

“The new generation … they don’t want China, they want Taiwan,” he says.

Misak, the shirtless manager of Adaliua, has not heard from the Solomon Islands’ government about the future of his farm.

“We will not agree with our government with the shift to China. We still maintain our allegiance and support our premier,” he says, speaking behind a barbed wire fence surrounding the farm.

Sam Sudulakia, a 40-year old English-teacher, says the supervisor of the project has gone back to Taiwan. As Sudulakia speaks, Stephen Donga, 71, appears, carrying a machete and small axe used for farming.

“What about you people in Australia, would you mind help us continue with the farm?” Donga asks.

‘Would Australia mind helping us fund the farm?’ joked Stephen Donga on Malaita island, after Taiwan pulled its support following the diplomatic row.

‘Would Australia mind helping us fund the farm?’ joked Stephen Donga on Malaita island, after Taiwan pulled its support following the diplomatic row. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian 

‘Money is always involved’

Sitting at the Mendana Hotel on Honiara’s foreshore as a gentle swell laps against a seawall, Peter Kenilorea Jr says he believes money is at the heart of the diplomatic switch.

Young, eloquent and the son of Solomon Islands’ first prime minister, Kenilorea – or Junior as he is affectionately known – is the deputy leader of the opposition and calls the government’s move a “slap in the face of the parliamentary process”.

“I think it’s an open secret that there’s always money involved in these things. Hard evidence is another issue,” says Kenilorea, sitting in the shade of coconut trees as, in the distance, Taiwanese-flagged ships sit idle at port.

Kenilorea says he has heard reports of MPs being offered between SBD$2m-$5m ($246,000-$615,000) to vote in favour of Beijing.

Daniel Sudaini, the premier of Malaita, one of Solomon Islands’ largest and most populous provinces, was among those leaders who took a firm stand against Beijing and claims offers were made to him to soften his position.

“Before the switch was made… there is a group of people or maybe someone who called me on the phone to give me an offer so I can support the switch. But I decided not to because if I accept the offer I’m not representing the people.

“They were offering an amount of money, telling me on the phone if you join us there’s a package here.”

Sudaini says that his accusation is now the subject of a formal inquiry by Solomon Islands’ police commissioner and so he can’t go into more detail about the offer, but the Solomon Star reported that Sudaini claimed the bribe he was offered was SBD$1m ($123,000).

In a statement, China’s foreign ministry said the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Solomon Islands had been an “open and above board” process.

“No rumour or slander will affect the development of friendly relations between China and the Solomon Islands,” it said.

A 2017 report by Transparency International found Solomon Islands to be “very corrupt”, having “weak accountability and integrity institutions”.

Titus Fika, a government MP who led the taskforce that ended up recommending Honiara make the switch, said any claims of corruption from the Beijing camp were not true.

He said the group – made up of three government MPs, three opposition MPs and one independent MP – based their decision on the facts and by looking around at other Pacific nations that have relationships with China, which are more economically advanced than the Solomon Islands.

But Fika alleges he was approached by Taiwan with a bribe.

“Taiwan wanted to bribe [me]. They wanted to give us $1m to sign for Taiwan then after we sign for Taiwan we will receive another [$1m] into our account,” he said.

“But it doesn’t work, because we don’t sign for it, because we want to do the right thing, not to for our own interest but for the country’s interest and our constituency interests.”

In a statement to the Guardian, Taiwan rejected Fika’s accusation.

“Under no circumstances will Taiwan resort to an ugly dollar diplomacy bidding war with China, much less line the pockets of corrupt politicians,” said Joanne Ou, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

‘I didn’t sleep since the switch’

The impact of the decision by the government was immediate and angry. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen issued a statement saying “We sincerely regret and strongly condemn their government’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China.

“It is indeed regrettable that their unfinished cooperative projects must come to an end, and it is a loss for Solomon Islands people. However, this is the choice that Solomon Islands’ government has made, leaving us with no other option but to respond in this way,” she said.

For Georgia Luilamo, the result was devastating.

Patricia Luilamo’s daughter Georgia won a prestigious scholarship to a Taiwanese country, which was terminated overnight.

Patricia Luilamo’s daughter Georgia won a prestigious scholarship to a Taiwanese country, which was terminated overnight. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

The 23-year-old is one of more than 100 Solomon Islander students who had been given prestigious scholarships to study at Taiwanese universities. After the break with Taiwan, all the scholarships were terminated, something they found out about by reading the newspaper.

The students, enrolled in everything from medicine to politics to business to biotech were given until January to leave Taiwan.

“I didn’t even sleep … since the switch,” says Patricia Luilamo, Georgia’s mother in Honiara.

Patricia says her daughter and other Solomons’ students have been offered spots at mainland Chinese universities, with the government saying their scholarships would continue to be paid. But Patricia says she has seen no details about this move: “There’s nothing from China; there’s nothing from Solomon Islands.”

Most students are fearful about moving to universities located in cities they’d never heard of and few have complied. Patricia now faces using her small savings, money her husband left her when he died last year, to pay for her daughter’s tuition.

‘You cannot yoke a cat with an elephant’

The people of the island of Malaita, an independently-minded and pro-Taiwan part of the country, are angry not only at the Sogavare Government’s decision, but the way it was made.

In the wake of the news, Sogavare dispatched Malaitan MPs within his government back to their constituencies to explain the government’s position. Video circulating on social media shows the degree of public anger faced by the MPs, who were met with vocal condemnation as they travelled the province.

“I think Prime Minister Sogavare should go and tell people in [the] community and after he declared that he [can] make change,” says David, 32, who sells betel nut at a wooden stand in central Auki.

Weeks earlier, David was one of an estimated 500 Malaitans who protested against the switch. Next to his betel nuts, he still proudly displays his hand-made sign he carried to the rally: “No Need China.”

David displays a sign next to his betel nut stand conveying his feelings about the diplomatic change his country has made.

David displays a sign next to his betel nut stand conveying his feelings about the diplomatic change his country has made. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

As in Honiara, a majority of small businesses in Auki are owned and operated by ethnic-Chinese, many first and second generation immigrants to Solomon Islands. But their presence has long caused tension and in 2006, Chinese businesses in Honiara were infamously ransacked following accusations of Beijing’s influence in that year’s election.

There is concern that the anti-China sentiment is not just driven by pro-democracy sentiment but also by anti-China racism.

One of the rioters that day was Richard Olita, the bearded, burly 35-year-old secretary of Malaita for Democracy, an anti-Beijing Malaitan independence movement.

“You cannot yoke a cat with an elephant. China is too big for us”, says Olita. “Given the weak economy, and the weak country, even the institutions of this country, it’s not strong, so we cannot work with China. They will just overpower us.”

Malaita for Democracy doesn’t just want to stop Malaita forming a relationship with Beijing, they want existing Chinese businesses in Auki expelled from the province and are using their influence to try and get the provincial government to do this.

Children swim in water off Savo island, which islanders fear could be leased by a Chinese company.

Children swim in water off Savo island, which islanders fear could be leased by a Chinese company. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

Already, Sudaini’s provincial government has pledged to prohibit businesses “directly or indirectly linked to the Chinese Communist Party” from obtaining Malaitan business licenses and closed at least one Chinese-owned store.

Despite Honiara severing ties with Taiwan, some hope Auki can still cobble together some form of relationship with Taipei.

Taiwan has not ruled out such an arrangement.

“As long as relations are built on a foundation of equality and mutual assistance for mutual benefit, we do not rule out any possibilities,” says Ou.

“However, we do not have any plans for future cooperation at this time.”

Fears Savo could be leased to China

A small volcanic clump 35km off the coast of the Honiara, Savo has a population of just 4,000 people, who maintain their own language, Savo Savo, and culture entirely distinct from neighbouring islands.

Islanders travel by foot from village to village. There are no motorised vehicles or television on the island. Children spend their afternoons paddling dugout canoes and fishing in turquoise waters, while adults still re-construct thatched-roofed, bamboo framed huts that were decimated by Tropical Cyclone Mona in January.

But over the last few months the islanders have been worried that their way of life is under threat from China. Shortly after the diplomatic switch, the premier of Central Province Stanley Maniteva signed an agreement with a Chinese company called SAM Group, to lease the provincial capital of Tulagi and “surrounding islands”, without specifying which ones were in China’s sights.

Local business owner Bernard Kamekaza is worried that “surrounding islands” could mean Savo.

Sunset on Savo island, which locals fear could be leased to a Chinese company along with neighbouring Tulagi.

Sunset on Savo island, which locals fear could be leased to a Chinese company along with neighbouring Tulagi. Photograph: Edward Cavanough/The Guardian

While it made international headlines, the lease agreement was dead on arrival. It failed to consider the existing rights of traditional land owners, and was struck down by Solomon Islands’ attorney general John Muria Junior.

But there is a deep anxiety that this is not the end of the matter and in early December Kamekaza made the 90-minute banana boat journey from Savo to Tulagi later this month, and delivered a petition alongside other prominent Central Province landholders to Premier Maniteva, demanding an explanation for his handling the lease attempt.

Multiple interview requests by the Guardian to Prime Minister Sogavare’s office were denied.

Since the switch, the prime minister has rarely commented on it in public. During a week-long visit to Australia in November, Sogavare did not make himself available to Australian media.

“It’s a sad state of affairs for a democratic country like the Solomons [for the leader] to not be able to front up to a decision,” says deputy opposition leader Peter Kenilorea Junior. “Just to say nothing at all is a concern.”

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