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In 2019, the Solomon Islands ended its decades-long alliance with Taiwan and instead diplomatically recognized China, a much-publicized decision that prompted fears of Beijing’s growing influence in the region and divided residents within the island nation of 700,000.
A new book, “Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch,” by Edward Acton Cavanough, analyzes what happened leading up to and after the diplomatic change and examines the locals who have been influential figures in the story.
Mr. Cavanough, a journalist and the chief executive of the McKell Institute, a progressive research organization, discussed how the change in diplomatic recognition played out on the ground, upending lives and reshaping the country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your book, you discuss how we often talk about what happened in the Solomon Islands in terms of how it affects Australia and regional security and global geopolitics — with local interests and agency getting overlooked. How does the story change when you look at it through a local lens?
What you realize as soon as you get on the ground is that the decision to switch from Taiwan to China was not some distant political decision. There were people all over the country that literally had their lives turned upside down in an instant, thanks to this sort of political decision from a government that inside the Solomons is not even particularly popular.
You had individuals who had scholarships that the Taiwanese government had funded, who had those rescinded instantly, and that just disrupted hundreds of people. You had farmers and communities that were dependent on Taiwanese-funded programs that were suddenly out of a job.
The other reason I wanted to report this was because, in this moment, it was clear that a lot of the sort of outcome was going to be shaped not so much by China or America or Australia, but by people within the Solomon Islands.
One of the main players in this story is Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands who, in 2019, made the decision to change the country’s alliance. What did your research reveal about him?
He’s often discussed as a mystery man, a guy who’s ultimately unpredictable. But I think his beliefs are pretty clear and transparent. Effectively, he’s very skeptical of any form of international influence on his country, of things like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank. He’s had a long-held dream to effectively remove the Solomon Islands from that dependency on the international finance system.
I think Sogavare is sometimes talked about as a sort of China proxy. That is not consistent with the way that he views the world. He’s been very clever at leveraging his closer relationship with China for gain. But I don’t necessarily think he himself thinks that he is a pro-China or a pro-Australia person. I think he is a very impassioned nationalist. What he fundamentally is, is someone who’s motivated by self-interest and motivated by what he perceives as a path toward maximizing Solomon sovereignty.
Where was resistance to the switch coming from?
The Solomons has this really complicated internal political dimension based largely, in the most simplistic terms, between two ethnic groups. The island of Malaita is the largest province in the country, and about half the national population of the Solomon Islands are ethnic Malaitans. They’ve always had issues with the fact that in their interests, their economy has often been ignored by decision-makers in the capital, Honiara.
What happened when the switch occurred was effectively that existing fault line became the dividing line between a pro-Taiwan camp and a pro-China camp. So very quickly, there was the emergence of an organization called the Malaita for Democracy, a somewhat ragtag bunch of Malaitan nationalists who put together a movement which was based around the fact that the China decision was pushed on the people of Malaita by Sogavare, and Malaitans needed to create a country of their own and they needed to have that country supported by Taiwan and the United States.
It’s been a couple of years now since the switch — how do people in the Solomon Islands feel about it these days?
What we’ve seen is the Chinese government has come in and placated the interests of the prime minister himself rather than actually doing anything substantive or structural, in terms of economic development in Solomon Islands.
In Honiara, they’ve just finished this brand-new stadium, and there’s not enough medicine in the main hospital in the country. There’s medicine shortages, so they’re turning people away from the hospital. You couldn’t ask for a more clear contrast in terms of the misallocation of priorities from the Chinese approach. And that really angers people.
There is a really quite sad cynicism among many rural Solomon Islanders that nothing will ever change. They saw billions of dollars getting pumped into Honiara previously from Australia in terms of its peacekeeping efforts and state-building efforts. Now they’re seeing millions of dollars or hundreds of millions, at least, going into sporting infrastructure supported by China.
So there’s an opportunity for Australia or the United States there, right?
Australia is not going to build sports stadiums in Solomon Islands — and nor should we. But what Australia, the United States, the broader development ecosystem should be doing is figuring out how to solve the problems that no one else can or will — those really stubborn, long-term, grass-roots issues. Things like small-scale energy, poverty alleviation, making sure that local clinics have enough medicine.
I went to the home village of the head of Malaita for Democracy, Knoxley Atu. He’s the figurehead of the anti-China movement in the whole country. On the same ferry that I caught across to Malaita, a bunch of Chinese businessmen came over and they were going to that exact same area, within a few kilometers, to finalize a prospecting deal for a mine, which they managed to do by paying people, like, $1,000 each.
So literally in the heartland of the anti-China movement of the entire country, despite all of the promises and all the ambition, a couple of savvy Chinese business blokes with security guards rocked up with a bag of cash, and the community is so desperate for anything that suddenly, they stitch up this prospecting deal.
They’re paying, like, $50 each time they drill a hole, to the whole community — it’s this really exploitive, terrible thing. But it’s a window into how even with such determined resistance toward the idea of China, there’s also just this overwhelming sense and need for money and for economic activity. And communities are willing to open the door to anyone, no matter what their prevailing beliefs are in the area, because they literally just need food, medicine, basic stuff.
Now for this week’s news:
Australia and New Zealand
Should Children Join the Killing in New Zealand’s War on Invasive Species? A hunting contest has exposed tensions over which animals deserve protection, who gets to define humaneness and how children should be taught about conservation.
Trump Said to Have Revealed Nuclear Submarine Secrets to Australian Businessman. Soon after leaving office, the former president shared sensitive information about American submarines with a billionaire member of Mar-a-Lago, according to people familiar with the matter.
China Is Suffering a Brain Drain. The U.S. Isn’t Exploiting It. China’s brightest minds, including tech professionals, are emigrating, but many are not heading to America. We spoke to them to ask why.
Around the Times
The 8-Year-Old Boy at the Heart of a Fight Over Tibetan Buddhism. He may have to defend the faith in Mongolia against pressure from China’s ruling Communist Party.
The Remaking of The Wall Street Journal. Emma Tucker, the top editor, is moving away from some of the organization’s traditions.
Why Do Runway Models Always Look So Grumpy? A reader wonders why we rarely see smiles on the catwalk — and if that’s always been the case in fashion.
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