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The Solomon Islands and the 'Look North' policy.

Written by: (Contributed) on 20 February 2024


Above - Sogavare and Xi Jinping establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership July 10, 2023.  Photo China Daily

The Solomon Islands goes to the polls on 16 April with the present government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare expected to retain power. The ruling Sogavare administration remains popular with Solomon Islanders although it has been demonised in recent years by right-wing defence and security hawks in Canberra, backed by the US. An assessment from the right-wing Lowy Institute, influential in the corridors of power in Canberra, therefore, has provided an interesting insight into the nature of Australia-Solomons Islands diplomacy.

With electioneering taking place in the Solomon Islands, the present government of Prime Minister Sogavare has announced its five key policy priorities if returned to office; the priorities are all linked to China and its active diplomatic involvement since the Solomon Islands switched to Beijing from Taipei in 2019. They include a national broadband project by Huawei, closer involvement with the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese police training their Solomons' counterparts, with closer security co-operation with China together with strengthening existing relations with China. (1)

The new Look North policy of the government has also been strengthened with the formation of a ruling political organisation, the Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party.

Politics in the Solomon Islands, like much of the vast Pacific region, has traditionally been based on strongly localised leaders representing a multitude of different ethnic groups. The new OUR Party, however, is based at the national level and has over-ridden many of the ethnic problems which have plagued the Solomon Islands for decades, hindering economic development of one of the poorest countries in the region.

The problem was also exacerbated by diplomatic links between the Solomon Islands and Taiwan; Taiwanese aid programs were channelled through provincial government administrations, the outcome favouring some ethnic groups over others. The decision by the Sogavare government in 2019, to switch diplomatic links to China was regarded by many Solomon Islanders as a good move, although those ethnic groups which lost their aid provision on Malaita Island subsequently marched on the capital Honiara and attacked businesses regarded as owned or controlled by China. Direct involvement from Canberra for law enforcement was necessary to restore political stability.

The Solomon Islands, as part of the South Pacific sub-region, has always been regarded as an important addition to Australia's defence and security in conjunction with neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. It is, therefore, in keeping with the relationship for the arc from Australian military signals intelligence facilities in Queensland to swing through the capital cities of all three Melanesian countries. (2)

While the three countries have their own defence and security provision, established when they achieved independence, they have historically been over-ridden by Australia as the former colonial power. Australia retained the status of the Mother Country afte independence. The defence and security facilities, however, are also further over-ridden by the US, with its global intelligence system at Pine Gap, Central Australia. The US, nevertheless, has usually relied upon Australia for localised operations in line with Five Eyes provision; the 'alliance' always has been the dominant force in US-Australian diplomacy as part of the elite Five Eyes intelligence facilities.

From the early 1970s the US National Security Agency (NSA) together with the British GCHQ starting sharing intelligence work with other members of the Five Eyes. (3) It has now evolved into a highly sophisticated defence and security-based relationship. The origins, however, were not coincidental. In 1973 the US opened sensitive intelligence facilities on Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean which operated in conjunction with Pine Gap.

The opening of the US intelligence facilities included counterparts at Silvermine, near Cape Town, in South Africa, likewise, became operational at the same time. The stated range of the South African intelligence facilities reached from Argentina to Bangladesh, and from north Africa to the South Pole, providing defence and security provision for the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions. (4) The South African facilities maintained direct contact with both the US and UK, as dominant within the Five Eyes. (5)   

As the present Cold War position taken by the US toward China has escalated, regional defence and security provision has become increasingly important for the Pentagon and its military planners. A quick study of the US regional military involvement has revealed endless obsession and preoccupation with the maintenance of traditional hegemonic positions in the face of increasing competition from China.

The US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), for example, has included Japan being elevated into a global alliance with the US for regional operations, resting on the so-called 'quad' designed to hem in China on all sides. (6) The 'quad' is linked to lower-level partners. (7)

Elsewhere, the Pentagon has re-opened a multitude of military facilities across the vast Indo-Pacific region. (8) The US-led regional foreign policy has included re-using Island Chain Theory (ICT), largely discredited during the previous Cold War, and using it to host numerous missile networks. (9) The ICT is, at present, being upgraded to include the Indian Ocean. (10)

It is, therefore, hardly surprising to find the Sogavare administration has been increasingly demonised by right-wing defence and security hawks in Canberra eagerly pursing the US line; it cannot be trusted to follow their diplomatic positions. A recent assessment from the Lowy Institute, for example, included reference to 'the wide array of China-backed policies that will continue to cause Canberra unease if Mr Sogavare is returned after the April election, as is expected by many analysts … he fully intends to pursue closer ties with China'. (11) No recognition was provided in the assessment for Melanesian traditional diplomacy conducted along lines of the peoples of the sub-region being 'friends to all and enemies to none'. (12)

In conclusion, the diplomatic position of Canberra toward the Solomon Islands remains one based in neo-colonial attitudes based on wanton speculation. 

At this stage, Australian and US fears that China plans to establish a military base in the Solomons appear unfounded, but China is pursuing its own imperialism – with Chinese characteristics – and must be watched if countries are to maintain their independence.

                                         Every country needs an independent foreign policy!

1.     Solomons PM vows: 'I'll look to China', Australian, 14 February 2024.
2.     See: Peters Projection, World Map, Actual Size.
3.     Spyworld, Mike Frost, (Canada, 1995), page 40.
4.     'Maritime Operational Communications HQ', The Star (South Africa), 10 March 1973; and, Security in the Mountain, The Star (South Africa), 17 March 1973.
5.     Ibid.
6.     The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
7.     Ibid.
8.     US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012; and, The Guardian Weekly, (U.K.), 2 May 2014.
9.     US to build anti-China missile network along first island chain, Nikkei Asia, 5 March 2021.
10.   Wikipedia: Island Chain Theory.
11.   Australian, op.cit., 14 February 2024.
12.   Ibid.


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