Solomon Islands readies for election in shadow of China’s influence


Honiara: Solomon Islanders go to the polls this week, voting in an election that promises to strengthen or blunt China regional ambitionsWith security consequences that will extend far beyond the palm-fringed shores of the Pacific nation.
This archipelago is the unlikely center point of one of the world's least developed countries diplomatic scuffle To pit rising China against Western rivals.
solomon islands has entered China's orbit under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has signed a secret security agreement With Beijing in 2022.
Sogavare has vowed to deepen these ties if re-elected.
Meanwhile, his challengers are deeply suspicious of Beijing's influence in the Pacific archipelago known as the “Hapi Islands.”
“Everyone knows this election will be watched very closely by the United States, China and other Pacific island countries,” said Anouk Ryde, a Solomon Islands expert at the Australian National University.
“It feels like the pressure is increasing.”
lurch towards china
The former British colony gained independence in 1978 and established diplomatic relations with Taiwan as one of its earliest foreign partners.
But these long-standing ties suddenly broke down in 2019, when the newly established Sogavare gave its full support to Beijing's “One China” stance.
A wave of Chinese aid and investment arrived, including millions of dollars for a state-of-the-art medical center and a 10,000-seat athletics stadium.
In 2022, the Solomon Islands signed a surprise security deal with Beijing, alarming traditional partners Australia and the United States.
Although final details remain unclear, Western allies fear the agreement is the first step toward a permanent Chinese military base in the South Pacific – something that could be a game-changer for security in the region.
China already maintains a small but distinct police presence in the nation, sending a rotating cadre of officers to train locals in shooting, riot tactics and martial arts.
The Solomon Islands still bears the scars of the last time it was caught between two chest-beating major powers.
At the height of World War II, Japan and the United States waged a brutal war on the Solomons, pelting it with unexploded bombs that still kill people today.
Kidnapping and riots
Elections in the country of about 720,000 people are always noisy, often tumultuous and sometimes violent.
In 2000, then-Prime Minister Bart Ulufalu was forced to resign after being kidnapped by gunmen.
International peacekeepers were deployed to quell post-election violence in 2006, forcing premier Snyder Rini out of office after just eight days.
In the lead up to this year's vote, alcohol will be banned on the archipelago's 900 islands and coral atolls.
Sogavare's main rivals include former UN lawyer Peter Keniloria, who is akin to political royalty in the Solomon Islands.
His father, Peter Keniloriya Sr., was the country's first Prime Minister after independence.
Matthew Vale, a chartered accountant and long-time human rights campaigner, is another prominent opposition figure.
Both Vale and Keniloriya have been sharply critical of the China security agreement, indicating a possible change in direction if Sogavare is defeated.
'Master of Destruction'
Sogavare has been the leading political figure in the Solomon Islands over the past 20 years, holding the top post on four separate occasions since 2000.
A foreign academic once dubbed him the country's “master of catastrophe”, and critics fear his heavy-handed behavior is increasing authoritarianism.
In recent years, the 69-year-old karate black belt has tried to quell dissent by threatening to ban foreign journalists, Facebook and visiting diplomats who interfere.
Sogavare faced widespread condemnation for delaying national elections by seven months last year.
“He centralized power and wielded power in a way that previous prime ministers had not,” said Clive Moore, a historian who has spent decades studying the Solomon Islands.
But Sogavare's grip on power is far from perfect.
His embrace of Beijing in 2019 partly fueled a wave of anti-government riots that spread through the Chinatown district of the capital, Honiara.
Violence returned in 2021, when angry mobs tried to storm the Parliament, set fire to Chinatown and attempted to tear down Sogavare's house.
While foreign diplomats are sweating over the geopolitical consequences of the election, locals will be more affected by rising poverty and lack of jobs.
The Solomon Islands ranks in the bottom quarter of the UN's Human Development Index – one place above Haiti and several places below war-torn Myanmar.
“There are other serious issues right now,” said Ride, who has lived and traveled in the Solomon Islands.
“There's a health system there that has fallen into disrepair to the point where you can't even get basic medicines at your local clinic,” he told AFP.
“The second is the economy, and the impact of the country going further into debt.”

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