Protests Engulf Solomon Islands and Chinese Businesses Amid Geopolitical Rivalries

Last week, the Solomon Islands erupted in protest. Rioters in the country’s capital, Honiara, torched numerous buildings in Chinatown, ransacked a police station, and defied government lockdown orders. Despite being met with tear gas and rubber bullets, some even stormed the parliament, burned down a building in the parliamentary precinct, and attempted to depose Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, as the national opposition leader Matthew Wale called on him to resign. At the heart of public discontent is a mix of grievances including Chinese and Taiwanese competition for influence, outside powers exploiting resources at the expense of locals, poor government distribution of resources, and a history of domestic conflict. Jason Scott from Bloomberg described China’s prominent role in the unrest:

The leader of the Solomon Islands blamed “other powers” for anti-China riots as Australian troops were deployed to help quell the unrest.

Divisions over the Pacific nation’s diplomatic recognition of China over Taiwan in 2019 was “the only issue” behind the conflict, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in a report published Friday. “Unfortunately, it is influenced and encouraged by other powers,” he said, adding: “I don’t want to name names, we’ll leave it there — we know who they are.”

The spat is centered around two main islands about 110 kilometers (70 miles) apart with a history of clashing: Guadalcanal, which holds the capital Honiara, and Malaita, the most-populous isle with a third of the nation’s 650,000 people. Daniel Suidani, who leads Malaita, has been a vocal critic of the decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing, which opened an embassy in Honiara last year.

The “very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don’t want ties with the People’s Republic of China and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution,” Sogavare added. [Source]

The Solomon Islands’ relations with China and Taiwan have long been a source of controversy within the country. In the aftermath of the 2006 general elections, protesters razed much of Honiara’s Chinatown amid rumors that Beijing-backed businesses had rigged the vote. Following Prime Minister Sogavare’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, claimed the prime minister was offered a bribe from Beijing; Sogavare denied their claims. The diplomatic switch reportedly brought over half a billion dollars in financial aid from China. That same year, the neighboring Pacific island nation of Kiribati followed the Solomon Islands’ decision, leaving only 15 countries that officially recognize Taiwan. 

Colin Packham, Kirsty Needham and Ben Blanchard from the Australian Financial Review reported that the chaos in the capital was so intense that the government requested military and police support from Australia

Solomon Island resident Transform Aqorau said more than 100 people were on Friday looting shops, before Australian Federal Police officers arrived. 

“The scenes here are really chaotic. It is like a war zone,” Mr Aqorau said by telephone on Friday morning. 

“There is no public transport and it is a struggle with the heat and the smoke. Buildings are still burning.” 

He said later that Australian police were “taking control of Chinatown”. 

A statement on the Solomon Islands government website said public servants with the exception of essential workers should stay at home “due to the current unrest in Honiara City”. 

Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton said a plane carrying 23 federal police and several diplomats flew to Honiara late on Thursday. Up to 50 more police as well 43 defence force personnel with a navy patrol boat were scheduled to arrive on Friday. [Source]

The Chinese government condemned the violence and any attempts to interfere in the status quo. At a press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated, “All attempts to disrupt the normal developmental relations between China and the Solomon Islands are just futile.” The Chinese embassy in Honiara warned Chinese citizens to shut down their businesses and hire security guards. The Taiwanese government stated that the unrest had nothing to do with Taiwan

Not all of the unrest is related to foreign policy. Fighting between domestic militant groups from Guadalcanal and Malaita rattled the country from 1998 to 2003 and claimed approximately 200 lives. The current prime minister, Sogavare, began his four-term tenure in the aftermath of a coup that was incited by this fighting, which only stabilized after Australia and New Zealand led a joint peacekeeping mission in the country from 2003 to 2017. Also fueling tensions is a perceived unequal distribution of government resources that has left Malaita one of the least-developed provinces in the country, despite being the most populous.

These tensions over domestic inequality in the Solomon Islands are intimately tied to the competition for influence in the country. Maria Siow and Joshua Mcdonald from the South China Morning Post described how some Solomon Islanders see the economic presence of China and other foreign nations as harmful to local residents:

Fabrizio Bozzato, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute, said that resentment against ethnic Chinese businesses in the country was a long standing issue as the Chinese, including those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, were often seen as economic competitors of the locals who took away jobs and fuelled corruption.

“In a nation where land is often customarily-owned and land disputes are flammable, appropriation or long-term leasing of land to Chinese interests often prompt outrage,” Bozzato said, adding that Chinese communities in the Solomons were easy targets as they were culturally isolated and did not enjoy the protection of traditional societal formations such as clans and tribes. 

[…] “It’s not just from China, there are logging companies from Malaysia and India, and they continue to do illegal and destructive harvesting of our natural resources,” said the public servant from Honiara who wished to remain anonymous, adding that a lack of transparency and cases of officials receiving bribes had angered islanders. [Source]

The issue extends beyond a populist embrace of Taipei or a government pivot to Beijing. The Taipei-backed former prime minister Snyder Rini was ousted from power after a wave of protests in 2006, and in 2019 the attorney general of the Solomon Islands ruled illegal a Chinese company’s agreement to lease one of the country’s islands. Geopolitical competition between powerful actors has long exploited fractures in the Solomon Islands, to the detriment of local populations. The country experienced some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific during World War II, and even today, locals are killed by leftover ordinance from the war that remains buried underground. Having won independence from Great Britain only in 1978 (and with Queen Elizabeth still officially its position of head of state), the Solomon Islands continue to be endure jousting for influence by foreign powers. Yan Zhuang from the New York Times described how U.S.-China rivalry contributes to this trend:

With the United States providing Malaita with direct foreign aid while China supports the central government, existing fractures in the nation have deepened, [Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat stationed in the Solomon Islands,] said. 

“Geostrategic competition does not by itself trigger rioting,” Mr. Sora said, “but it’s the actions of these large nations as they curry sympathy with local actors — favoring some over others to pursue their own strategic objectives without pausing to consider what are already deep social and political undercurrents in the country — that have a destabilizing effect on social cohesion.” [Source]

Elisabeth Beattie from Nikkei Asia also highlighted unease amid a broader game of “geopolitical chess”:

“The idea that geopolitical competition has a destabilizing effect on fragile societies is a very strong current to the events that are happening right now,” [research fellow and project director of the Lowy Institute’s Aus-PNG Network Mihai] Sora said. “That will not be lost on the region.”

In Honiara, [gender and human rights consultant in the Solomon Islands Ruby] Awa said, “From where I am, it feels like we’re pawns in the game.”

[…] Although [Awa] called the presence of Australian troops “a relief,” she also said foreign troops provoked another question: “Where’s our sovereignty?” [Source]

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pointedly back Taiwan. On Friday, as the Solomon Islands were wracked by violence, a party of five Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives traveled to Taipei. The lawmakers met with President Tsai Ing-wen and other high-ranking officials, the third such visit to Taiwan by U.S. lawmakers this year. They reaffirmed U.S. “rock solid” support for Taiwan and “shared responsibility for a free and secure Indo-Pacific region.” 


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