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Monday, December 6, 2021

Behind the scenes in the Solomon Islands, the local leader has used the China problem to his advantage.

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In China’s decision, many saw another example of how the national government ignored the island’s views.

This sense of injustice, while genuine, also provided fertile ground for political agitators.

The Malaysian government, led by Prime Minister Daniel Suidani, has been particularly adept at harnessing China’s domestic and global politics of “change” to its advantage.

Shortly after the switch to China occurred, Suidani banned Chinese business in Malaita, a demand of the Malaita for Democracy group, whose ultimate aspiration is for Malaita to become an independent state.

Within days of China’s recognition, Suidani had become the leader of the anti-China movement in the country.

Seeing the value of this anti-China stance, Suidani began engaging in creative and illegal international diplomacy aimed at strengthening his 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 de facto Taipei consulate, in Brisbane.

There, an informal agreement was reached between the Malaitans and the Taiwanese, which resulted in the arrival of large amounts of Taiwanese aid to Malaita, in contravention of national law.

Members of Australian Federal Police Special Operations are escorted across the runway to a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft for its flight to the Solomon Islands on Thursday.

Members of Australian Federal Police Special Operations are escorted across the runway to a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft for its flight to the Solomon Islands on Thursday.Credit:Defense / AP

The shipments were wrapped in flags of Taiwan and Malaitan and displayed in front of journalists. The ceremonies were intentionally provocative, intended to enrage Sogavare, provoke the Chinese embassy in the Solomon Islands, and garner support for Suidani from the democratic world.

The plan worked. Sogavare admonished Suidani, prompting the Malaitans to support their Premier.

The Chinese embassy lashed out at the prime minister’s actions, also emboldened Suidani’s stance and legitimized his claims that China was interfering in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands.

And the United States announced a $ 25 million ($ 35 million) aid package explicitly for Malaita, which, as former Australian diplomat Mihai Sora put it notesIt is 10 times more than what the province receives annually in foreign aid.

For some, Taiwan’s assistance to Malaita seemed driven by Taipei.

But the reverse is true: Understanding Taiwan’s desperation to stay relevant in the region, Malaita proactively wooed Taiwanese aid to obtain it, knowing that Taipei would not refuse and that any political fallout from the move would ultimately benefit Malaita.

There is a trope that Pacific nations are simply pawns in a global geopolitical competition.

But as Suidani has shown, Pacific actors are capable of harnessing geopolitical realities to their own advantage, routinely shaping and influencing the decision-making of foreign powers.

Charging

It shouldn’t go unnoticed that a provincial leader from a small impoverished Pacific island managed to get under China’s skin, manipulate Taiwanese foreign policy, and extract $ 25 million from Washington.

The actions of the Malaysian prime minister are not solely responsible for the unrest in Honiara, but they have exacerbated public anger towards the Sogavare government and highlighted the complex local realities that generate internal unrest in the Solomon Islands.

Given Sogavare’s unpopularity, the deployment of Australia’s ADF is not without its risks.

Hardliners from Malaysia see the deployment as “protection for Sogavare and his government.” The lack of support from key Malaitan figures for the ADF deployment is conspicuous.

If the deployment of the ADF helps Sogavare stay in power for years to come, the fundamental dynamics driving this week’s unrest will remain unresolved.

Ed Cavanough is a researcher, journalist and PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, studying the shift to China from the Solomon Islands.

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