Is a Chinese allegiance responsible for civil unrest?

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Honiara is burning, the local high school has been looted, insurgents have burned a timber company and protesters have vandalized dozens of Chinese-owned companies.

Australian troops and federal police have just landed in the Solomon Islands following a request for help from its Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare. Sogavare stands firm against the growing unrest and accuses its political rivals of being so dissident and reinforcing the anti-Chinese sentiment while toning down the ingrained economic problems that have led to the country’s recent crisis.

“I do not intend to bow to anyone,” Sogavare said on Friday. “The government is intact. We must defend democracy.”

So, what is the cause of the conflict? What do China and Taiwan have to do with it? And why is Australia involved?

What is behind the conflict?

The combination of ethnic and regional tensions between Honiara, the capital, and Malaita, its most populous province, was exacerbated by the economic effects of covid-19.

Seven out of ten residents of the Solomon Islands are under the age of 30, there are limited employment opportunities and industries including deforestation and tourism have struggled to gain a foothold after years of civil unrest.

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Young people are frustrated. They take it out on a government that they believe has been captured by foreign interests and failed to provide social services, while growing inequality between the political elite and the majority of people.

“It really is already a situation that is sensitive on any given day,” said Mihai Sora, a researcher at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat in the Solomon Islands. “So when you see someone mobilized, even if the intention is for it to be calm, people get nervous. Sometime during the course of events on Wednesday, the protests became something else.”

Buildings are burning in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.

Buildings are burning in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit:AFP

The country is still grappling with the legacy of the “tension period” between 1998 and 2003, where murder, lawlessness, widespread blackmail and ineffective policing forced ethnic militias to grow up on the two main islands – Guadalcanal, where Honiara is located, and Malaita – resulting in protracted cultural conflict and, eventually, an intervention of the Australian Defense Forces through RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Salomon Islands) in 2003, which extended to 2017.

The Guadalcanal political class and supporters of Malaita’s Prime Minister Daniel Suidani are still at the center of the conflict today. But it has also spread more to other parts of society where people are frustrated with the government’s economic policies.

“It marks a turning point. You now see a more heterogeneous crowd of people,” says Sora.

Sogavare, for its part, has dismissed the local unrest. The Prime Minister claims that the tensions are the result of his political rival Suidani inciting the mood against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the Solomon Islands exchanged its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 2019.

“That’s the only problem,” he told ABC on Friday. “They discourage Solomon Islands from entering into diplomatic relations and complying with international law and UN resolutions.”

People walk through the looted streets of Chinatown, Honiara, on November 26.

People walk through the looted streets of Chinatown, Honiara, on November 26.Credit:AP

So, what is the role of China and Taiwan in the conflict?

Solomon Islands became one of the last countries to change its diplomatic loyalty from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. The decision, which the Sogavare government claimed would result in greater financial support from China and investment in infrastructure projects, also fueled resentment in society after MPs were allegedly offered hundreds of thousands of dollars by China in exchange for their support.

China regards democratic Taiwan as a mainland province, so a condition for establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing was to sever all relations with Taipei. Australia and all other Western governments have had diplomatic relations with Beijing over Taipei for five decades.

But in Honiara, the sudden shift after decades of ties with Taiwan became a proxy for a broader dispute over the level of mainland Chinese investment in the struggling economy and the political class that benefits from it.

This in turn resulted in attacks on Chinese companies this week, some of which have no political ties to either Taiwan or China. “Some of these families have been in Honiara for generations,” says Sora.

“What we usually see is that the local Chinese community is an easy target. Although there are not really any decisive links to Beijing or China, they are directed at them in an opportunistic way. It is another factor that contributes to the fragility of peace. a certain day. ”

Cleo Paskal, an Asia-Pacific fellow at the Chatham House think tank for international affairs, said it was another factor that played into the highly religious country. “It is often presented as this economic thing,” she says. “But in fact, in connection with the Solomon Islands, for many people because they are very religious, it is a moral thing. They take communism at its word and see it as an aggressive atheist system. That is why it is not just economic.”

Suidani, Malaita’s Prime Minister, has also focused on the geopolitical part of the conflict as a way to polish his national leadership. The pro-Taiwan local prime minister traveled to Taipei to receive treatment for a suspected brain tumor in June, which triggered a strong reprimand from the Chinese embassy in Honiara.

Suidani has since said he will refuse all Chinese investment in his province with 200,000 inhabitants and accused the CCP of foreign interference after pro-Sogavare MPs cast a no-confidence motion against his government in his local legislature.

“The switch from Taiwan to China was a trigger,” said Anna Powles, an expert on Pacific defense and security studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “This really fit into the local dynamics of Malaita. It has a long-standing secessionist movement and this has really been fed into it.”

International intervention has so far only made matters worse. “Washington provided a $ 25 million aid package directly to the Government of Malaita and bypassed the central government and the processes they would normally have to go through,” Powles said. “It was incredibly destabilizing.”

Australia's federal police staff board a RAAF C-130 Hercules en route to the Solomon Islands, at RAAF Fairbairn in Canberra on Friday, November 26, 2021.

Australia’s federal police staff board a RAAF C-130 Hercules en route to the Solomon Islands, at RAAF Fairbairn in Canberra on Friday, November 26, 2021. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Why is Australia involved?

In 2017, Australia and Solomon Islands signed an agreement enabling Solomon Islands to request intervention from Australian Armed Forces and the Australian Federal Police in the event of civil unrest.

Sogavare on Thursday issued the request to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the situation spiraled out of control of local police.

On Friday, 43 Australian defense troops from the Army’s 3rd Brigade, 6th Brigade and 17th Brigade left Townsville for Honiara. Twenty-three AFP officers left on Thursday with another 50 expected to be deployed in the coming days to “support critical infrastructure security”.

Morrison says Australia will provide “stability and security so that normal constitutional processes” within the Solomon Islands can continue. “It is not the intention of the Australian Government to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands in any way, it is for them to resolve,” he said.

But Paskal believes that by stepping into the conflict, Australia can not claim to play a neutral role. “I think the Australians ended up in a very dubious position that they are now perceived as doing Sogavare and China. [People’s Republic of China] heavy lifting in a situation where they will promote the status quo, which is something that the vast majority of people in the country do not want, ”she says.

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“By jumping into the middle of this right now, what Australia is doing is freezing the situation in crisis.”

Sora does not agree. “It is not the best way to have a transition. What must happen is that the security situation must be stabilized. The situation is tense right now. If there is a change of leadership at some point, it is really up to the Solomon Islands people to decide.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Friday that she expected Australian troops to only be on the ground “for a few weeks”. The last time a Solomon Islands leader asked for help, in 2003, Australian forces were there for 14 years.

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