Australia is now in a competition with China to see who can be Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s “security partner of choice” as he cements his power as an anti-democratic leader preparing to use force and intimidation against his own people to stay in power.
It seems our desperation to stop Beijing being Sogavare’s major source of arms and training means we have to provide assault weapons to his police, while Beijing provides truck-mounted water cannons. The main losers here are the democratic voices in the Solomons parliament, such as Opposition leader Matthew Wale, and the Solomons people themselves, who are presumably the targets for these assault weapons and water cannons.
Look at Australia’s recent track record in handling Sogavare. Earlier this year, he signed his security pact with Beijing in the face of domestic, Australian, regional and international opposition.
Since then, in the week Anthony Albanese welcomed him in a pomp-filled visit to Australia to have each swear undying friendship to the other and have Sogavare again vow that Australia remained his “security partner of choice”, Sogavare sent 30 Solomons police off for training in China.
Now, our high commission in Honiara has proudly presented the police with Australian-gifted assault weapons from the company that equipped the high school shooter in Uvalde, US. Those assault rifles aren’t for village policing.
And two days after this, Beijing gave Sogavare the truck-mounted water cannons.
So his Beijing-trained police can use these trucks and our assault weapons as they deal with protesting Solomon Islanders who want the elections held that Sogavare cancelled, claiming he’d be too busy holding the two-week Pacific Games in Honiara. And – you guessed it – Beijing and Canberra are both funding those election-cancelling games.
How are we going with this partner of choice thing? It’s time to change course and support democratic voices and institutions in the Solomons, back the Solomons people and stop helping Sogavare turning his fourth term as prime minister into a job for life, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping.
Our aim should be for Australia to be the Solomon Islands people’s partner of choice. Let Beijing be Sogavare’s.
The big shift in policy is to recognise the two-card trick Canberra has played with the Solomons and our other South Pacific partners for decades is not just over, but counter-productive. Security assistance and aid are not the answers for South Pacific stability and prosperity, and nor are they vehicles that prevent the rise of Beijing-backed anti-democratic strongmen, as we are watching – and supporting – Sogavare become.
Left with these two levers to handle, Sogavare’s deepening ties to the regime in Beijing, we’re led to the embarrassments we’re seeing. And we’re undercutting any credit Australia’s built for a clear-eyed China policy.
Climate change assistance is a welcome move for South Pacific populations facing existential threats to their homes, but we need to fundamentally reinvent the relationships we have with our Pacific neighbours in a way that is in our interests and theirs.
And it’s possible. Right now, and for the projected future, Australia will struggle to find the workers we need to run our health system, our aged-care residences, our childcare system, the NDIS, agriculture, cyber security, retail – and the defence force. And we’re managing increasing economic pressures that compete with the desire to continually increase our foreign aid budget.
What would change this rapidly and positively is making the offer to small Pacific states to bring them into the hugely successful Australia-New Zealand Common Economic Relations framework, which lets Australians and New Zealanders travel freely between our countries to live and work.
Having a small state such as Vanuatu, with a population of 324,000, be the first to join would let us apply the practical details Australia and New Zealand have learnt together with a new partner.
And it would also demonstrate a vibrant path for the people of the Pacific to obtain security and prosperity, through the same economic integration that has worked so well between New Zealand and Australia.
his alternative future for Australia and New Zealand with our Pacific family would hold a mirror up to the model developing in Honiara under Sogavare and his Beijing backers.
And it would also end Australia’s decades of failed security and aid-centred assistance to the Pacific, replacing it with a path that is sustainable in the face of pressures from climate change concerns and an aggressive China.
Australia and New Zealand get productive additions to our economies from people who share our values, and the Pacific sees a future that isn’t dependent on foreign aid donors and autocrats. Less assault rifles, more job opportunities. What a crazy idea.
Michael Shoebridge is director and chief executive of Strategic Analysis Australia.
This article was first published in The Australian on 12 November 2022.