Solomons - China Relations
The Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara was placed under curfew 24 November 2021 after protesters attempted to storm the Pacific island nation’s parliament in an apparent coup plot. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators who set alight buildings, partly burning down a police station and the parliament building, The violence reportedly involved a group of protesters who travelled to Honiara this week from the neighboring island of Malaita. Their grievances are believed to involve perceived neglect by the central government and lingering dissatisfaction at the Solomons’ decision to switch diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China in 2019. Malaita’s leaders still maintain contact with Taiwan and receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said “These 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.” Rivalry between the most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government has repeatedly led to clashes, with Malaita complaining that it has been neglected. The province's premier, Daniel Suidani, has accused Sogavare of being in Beijing's pocket, alleging he had "elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders".
Mobs a 36-hour lockdown, with thousands of people - some brandishing axes and knives – roaming through the city's Chinatown, Point Cruz and business districts. Neighboring Papua New Guinea sent 35 police and security officers to Honiara. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was sending 100 police personnel and was "clearly focused on stability in our region". The Associated Press cited observers as saying that "Australia intervened quickly to avoid Chinese security forces moving in to restore order." In Chinatown, a large warehouse was set alight, causing an explosion that sent scores of people fleeing from the scene in panic. A tobacco warehouse was also set alight as smoke from previous days fires cast parts of the devastated city of 80,000 people in an acrid haze. The overrun Royal Solomon Islands Police Force said they had made just two arrests, with two police stations being among the many buildings burned.
More than 100 people have been arrested following days of rioting in the Solomon Islands. Police also found three bodies in a burned out building. Much of the violence has been in the Chinatown district of the capital. Tensions over links with China are largely behind the anger directed against the government. Large parts of the capital Honiara have been reduced to ruins. The city's Chinatown neighborhood was one of the main targets of violence.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands said in a national address on November 28 that “the recent events were well planned and orchestrated to remove me as the prime minister for unsubstantiated reasons”, adding the Solomon Islands government “will never bow down to the evil intention of a few people”. In Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on November 29, 2021, he stated "The Chinese side has stated its position on the current situation in the Solomon Islands several times. I would like to stress once again that China is closely monitoring the latest developments. We support the government’s efforts to end violence and chaos and condemn violent acts that damage property and vandalize public facilities. We are confident that under the leadership of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands government is capable of restoring social order and stabilizing the situation at home soon. The Chinese side is taking all necessary measures to protect the safety and lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions in the Solomon Islands.""
In September 2019, Republican Senator Marco Rubio threatened to crash the Solomons’ economy by cutting off access to global financial markets. This came just after a team of American foreign policy, trade, and military officials had visited Malaita and the province’s premier, Daniel Suidani. The provincial leader subsequently declared that he did not accept the country’s recognition of Beijing and would instead maintain an independent foreign policy with Taiwan. In October 2020, Washington pledged $US25 million in so-called aid to Malaita. This donation—500 times more aid than the province receives from all other countries put together.
China is the largest trading partner of the Solomon Islands. In 2018, the China-Solomon Islands trade reached $750 million. As a lesser developed country, the Solomon Islands had been politically and economically dependent on the West for decades.
Most of the more than 1,000 Chinese in Solomon Islands left China 30 or 40 years ago. There are a few thousand Chinese citizens and overseas Chinese in Solomon Islands. At the beginning of the last century, Chinese arrived in Solomon Islands traversing vast Pacific Ocean and made important contributions to the economic construction and social development of this country. They have now closely integrated into the local society of Solomon Islands. There are currently about a dozen Chinese companies in Solomon Islands, most of which were here before the establishment of diplomatic relations. They were engaged in infrastructure, minerals, tourism and forestry and received warmly welcome by the locals.
More than 300 Chinese who were evacuated from riot-torn Solomon Islands arrived in Guangzhou 25 April 2006 from Papua New Guinea. China started airlifting Chinese from Honiara, Solomon Islands' capital, which witnessed days of riots sparked by the controversial election of Prime Minister Synder Rini. The Chinese were the main targets and victims of the riots. The Chinatown was almost levelled following looting and arson, leaving many homeless and ruined after their businesses were lost. The All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese sent a message to the Chinese Embassy in Papua New Guinea yesterday, pledging to help the affected Chinese people. Since China and the Solomon Islands did not have diplomatic relations, the Chinese Embassy in Papua New Guinea sent commercial chartered planes to fly the Chinese out of Solomon Islands.
Among many Chinese engineering enterprises, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) was the first to do business in the South Pacific nation back in 2015. Focusing on delivering construction projects, the CHEC has worked with the Solomon Islands' government and the Asian Development Bank to build vital infrastructures for communities in need. The CHEC has undertaken a number of projects in the Solomon Islands, one of which was building a 96-meter-long concrete bridge in the agricultural region of East Guadalcanal in 2018, which took the team six months.
Taiwan warned the Solomon Islands that switching diplomatic ties to China could put the country at risk of falling into a debt trap. “China’s expansion in the Pacific has made many countries to fall into the trap of debt,” Joanne Ou, spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, told Reuters on 06 September 2019. “The flashy infrastructure that China promised has caused serious damage to the local ecosystem and infringed their sovereignty,” she said. The Solomon Islands is the largest of the Taiwan-aligned Pacific countries, recognising the territory since 1983 and providing access to airfields and deepwater ports dating back to World War II.
There is the potential for foreign policy matters to affect local politics and cause instability, as seen in the Solomon Islands after it switched ties from Taiwan to China in December 2019. The country’s largest province, Malaita, which remains loyal to Taiwan, has refused to recognise the switch and pledged to hold an independence vote, a move that the central government has rejected. The province protested against Solomon national government's cutting "diplomatic ties" with the island of Taiwan and acknowledging the one-China principle.
Having long been influenced by Western forces including the US and Australia, Malaita is infamous for its pro-Taiwan stance. Some people in Malaita, the Solomon Islands' most populous province that has been frequently seen playing tricks in attempts to damage the relationship between China and the Solomon Islands, clamored in September 2020 to call off a flight returning from China that was reportedly carrying Chinese officials including Li Ming, the new Chinese ambassador to the Solomon Islands. Daniel Suidani, premier of Malaita, announced in September 2020 an independence referendum for Malaita.
The Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Solomon Islands held an opening ceremony on 21 September 2020, launching a new chapter in the relations between the two countries.
The People's Republic of China and Solomon Islands, decided to recognize each other and establish diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, effective from the date of signature of the communiqué of 21 September 2019. The two Governments agreed to develop friendly relations between the two countries on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.
The Government of Solomon Islands "recognizes that there is but one China in the world, the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. The Government of Solomon Islands shall sever "diplomatic relations" with Taiwan as of this day and undertakes that it shall no longer develop any official relations or official exchanges with Taiwan". The Government of the People's Republic of China appreciates this position of the Government of Solomon Islands.
The Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of Solomon Islands agreed to exchange Ambassadors as early as possible and to provide each other with all the necessary assistance for the establishment of diplomatic missions and their performance of functions in each other's capitals on a reciprocal basis in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and international customary practices.
The New York Times reported that a Chinese company had secured "exclusive development rights" for all of Tulagi Island in September 2019 following a meeting with the Solomon Islands. Solomons’ Central Province made a “strategic cooperation agreement” on Tulagi Island, which has a natural deep-water harbor, with the firm China Sam Group on 22 September 2019. The previous day, China and the Solomon Islands officially established diplomatic relations after Beijing persuaded the Pacific nation to sever ties with Taiwan. The agreement with China Sam mentions developing a refinery on the island, but its potential for dual use as a Chinese military base raised concerns with the US and Australia.
The Solomons government had a change of heart and backed out on the Chinese company, a decision produced an unusual press release from DoD. "I want to applaud the decision of the Solomon Islands attorney general to invalidate the Chinese effort to lease the island of Tulagi for 75 years. This is an important decision to reinforce sovereignty, transparency, and the rule of law," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Oct. 25. "Many nations in the Pacific have discovered far too late that Chinese use of economic and military levers to expand their influence often is detrimental to them and their people."
Central Islands Province is one of Solomon Islands developing provinces struggling economically to survive the socio-economic challenges that this country is facing. With its booming population, and the dire need to sustain these challenges the province has to think seriously about investing in its tourism sector. The survival of this province would depend entirely on tourism to take them into the future. With its magnificent white sandy beaches, cool breeze, clear pristine waters, beautiful coral reefs, excellent surfing and fishing sports, beautiful people and the inviting environment that nature provides.
There was confusion in Solomon Islands over the signing of an agreement between Central Province and a Chinese developer. The provincial premier insisted the deal with Sam Group was on ice, but his signature is also on a strategic cooperation agreement. The deal would give Sam Group an exclusive five-year lease to develop Central Province into a "Special Economic Zone". According to a copy leaked online, this would include leasing all 200 hectares of Tulagi island, as well as its surrounding islands.
But the provincial premier, Stanley Manetiva, says although he signed the deal, it will never go ahead. "To be honest here, leasing Tulagi will not be possible, because they are existing land arrangements under the national laws which cover most of the land in Tulagi." According to a statement posted to the Sam Group company website, a Solomon Islands delegation visited its headquarters in August and hoped to work together. Crucially, in September 2019 Solomon Islands ditched long-time diplomatic ally Taiwan in favor of China. Mr Manetiva says he's open to working with Chinese firms after the switch. "We want the investors to come to our province. But we must be mindful, mindful in a sense that we must see that the people are our priority. The people are the landowners and the business owners."
Not everyone was convinced the deal with Sam Group was as non-binding as Mr Manetiva claims. The deputy opposition leader, Peter Kenilorea Junior, says he's worried the lease will still go ahead. "It raises a lot of concern for me, I didn't see any protection, or at least any obligation in the agreement that I saw that that also safeguards, the interests of Central islands province peoples and the resources, I know for sure that there is a big movement not to allow mining."
As part of the Tulagi lease, Sam Group would be able to survey the island for oil and gas developments. Central province, the former capital under British-ruled Solomon Islands, has a relatively small population but covers a vast area of more than 600km2. Kenilorea Junior says its strategic location may have made it a target for a Chinese developer like Sam Group.
A senior lecturer in security studies at New Zealand's Massey University, Anna Powles, says Solomon Islands might not be prepared for Chinese investment. "This may be a means to sort of piggybacking other companies into the Solomons, but certainly this is something that I know that a number of Solomon Islands foreign policy analysts and scholars are concerned about, is the implication of opening the floodgates to Chinese companies and investment interest in the Solomons." Anna Powles says the agreement leaves more questions than answers.
Still, local businesses on Tulagi are welcoming what they say is sorely-needed development. The owner of the Vanita Motel and Restaurant, Teika Dennis, says business is tough on a small island. "It's quite difficult. We don't have any banks and services here is quite low. Having investors to come and improve the place would be really great."
Another company listed as a party to the lease agreement, Xiamen International Trade Group, couldn't be reached for comment. One of Sam Group's subsidiaries, China Jing An, was previously part of China's Public Security Ministry.
Only 18 days after the establishment of diplomatic relations, Hon. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare paid a successful visit to China and was warmly welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both sides reached important consensus on the development of China-Solomon Islands relations and signed documents of cooperation on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), economic and technical cooperation, education, tourism, and sub-national cooperation, and achieved a smooth progress.
The government of the Solomon Islands vetoed a deal between a Chinese company and the Solomon's Central Province to develop one of its islands in October 2020. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper applauded the move, saying in a statement that it was "an important decision to reinforce sovereignty, transparency, and the rule of law". Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a routine press conference that the deal was terminated as the local government did not report the plan to the Solomn Islands government, and that "it is an isolated commercial case." Geng said "The Chinese government always requires Chinese companies which want to invest overseas to obey international rules and local laws. We encourage related Chinese companies to maintain communication with the Solomon Islands and properly resolve the issue".
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