In the China decision, many saw another example of the national government ignoring the island’s views.
This feeling of injustice, even if genuine, also provided fertile ground for political agitators.
The Government of Malaita, led by Prime Minister Daniel Suidani, has been particularly adept at playing China’s domestic and global policies to its advantage.
Shortly after the move to China, Suidani banned Chinese companies in Malaita – a demand from the Malaita for Democracy group, whose ultimate goal is for Malaita to become an independent state.
Within days of China’s recognition, Suidani had emerged as the leader of the anti-China movement in the country.
Suidani saw the value in this anti-China stance and began to engage in creative and illegal international diplomacy aimed at strengthening its political position at home.
In March 2020, six months after Honiara recognized Beijing, one of Suidani’s advisers traveled to Australia for a meeting at Taiwan’s economic and cultural office – the Taipei de facto consulate – in Brisbane.
An informal arrangement was reached between the Malaitans and the Taiwanese, which resulted in large amounts of Taiwanese aid arriving in Malaita, in violation of national law.
The broadcasts were draped in Taiwanese and Malay flags and paraded in front of journalists. The ceremonies were deliberately provocative, intended to tease Sogavare, provoke the Chinese embassy to the Solomon Islands and extract support for Suidani from the democratic world.
The plan worked. Sogavare admonished Suidani, prompting the Malaitans to gather around their prime minister.
The Chinese embassy rejected the prime minister’s actions and also encouraged Suidani’s stance and legitimized his claims that China was interfering in Solomon’s internal affairs.
And the United States explicitly announced a $ 25 million ($ 35 million) aid package for Malaita, which, like former Australian diplomat Mihai Sora notes, is 10 times what the province usually receives in foreign aid annually.
To some, Taiwan’s aid to Malaita seemed prompted by Taipei.
But the reverse is true: Malaita understood Taiwan’s desperation to maintain its relevance in the region and proactively enlisted Taiwanese aid for its gain, knowing that Taipei would not refuse, and that all political effects of the maneuver would ultimately benefit Malaita.
There is a trope that Pacific nations are just tiles in a global geopolitical competition.
But as Suidani has shown, Pacific actors are capable of exploiting geopolitical realities for their own gain, routinely shaping and influencing foreign powers’ decision-making.
That a provincial leader from a poor, small Pacific island managed to get under China’s skin, manipulate Taiwanese foreign policy and extract $ 25 million from Washington should not go unnoticed.
The actions of Malaita’s Prime Minister are not solely responsible for the unrest in Honiara, but they have exacerbated public anger against the Sogavare government and highlight the complex local realities that drive internal unrest in Salomon.
Given Sogavare’s lack of popularity, Australia’s ADF deployment is not without risks.
Hardliner Malayites see the deployment as “protection for Sogavare and his government”. The lack of support from key Malay people for the ADF deployment is striking.
If the ADF expansion helps Sogavare retain power for many years to come, the basic dynamics that drive this week’s concerns will remain unresolved.
Ed Cavanough is a researcher, journalist and doctoral student at the University of Adelaide, and studies the Solomon Islands’ China exchange.