The geopolitical rivalry thousands of kilometres away triggering violent Solomon Islands protests


A major cause of the unrest is a key decision made by the Solomon Islands Government to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, one expert says.

Jonathan Pryke, of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told 9News.com.au the decision in 2019 sparked a major dispute between the central government and Malaita province — the most populous island in the Solomon Islands archipelago.

A foreign policy decision by the Solomon Islands is behind the riots in the capital Honiara, experts say. (Nine)

The Solomon Islands had previously been among only a few countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan rather than China.

But two years ago, the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare set up formal diplomatic links with Beijing.

Dr Pryke said after ethnic tensions on the Solomon Islands had been quelled for years, they have become reignited by that foreign policy decision.

“There have been tensions between Guadalcanal — where the capital Honiara is located — and Malaita for a long time,” Dr Pryke said.

“But they were contained — with the help of Australian peacekeepers — back in 2003.

People walk through the looted streets of Chinatown in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands. (AP)

“Now geopolitics has pulled the lid off them.”

Mr Sogavare said he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only issue” in the violence, which was “unfortunately influenced and encouraged by other powers”.

External pressures were a “very big … influence. I don’t want to name names. We’ll leave it there,” Mr Sogavare said.

Do China and Taiwan matter in the Solomon Islands?

The decision to switch diplomatic ties to Beijing proved unpopular in the Malaita province, Dr Pryke said.

And the Taiwanese government has continued to support the province’s Premier, Daniel Suidani, in defiance of the Solomons Government, he said.

This has included medical supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaita and food aid.

Meanwhile, the extension of diplomatic, trade and business links with China and other nations has been met with concerns Solomon Islanders are losing out.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in 2019. (AAP)

Foreigners targeted in violence

There have been long-held complaints that foreign companies were not providing local jobs on the Solomon Islands.

According to Dr Pryke, many rioters are taking their grievances out on Chinese people in Honiara and the surrounding area.

“More Chinese have come in recently … they are very vulnerable, they don’t have any long-standing roots there … and they are being targeted now,” he said.

Australian Federal Police officers prepare for deployment to the Solomon Islands. (Supplied)

Dr Pryke said it is unlikely the violence will lead to the Solomon Islands resuming diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

“There was exhaustive debate on the issue in 2019 … That is done and dusted now,” he said.

Instead, he says Australia’s swift response in deploying peacekeepers and advisers to Honiara should calm tensions in the short term.

But until the next Solomon Islands election in 2023, the political divide in the country looks to continue.

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