During our panel discussions, [former Prime Minister] Hon. Danny Philips pretty much admitted that the signed security agreement is not far off the draft that has been leaked. That agreement talks about protecting ‘Chinese interests’: Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr.
The strategic frontline was on full display in Solomon Islands this week. There was official confirmation that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has signed a security agreement with China that opens the door for basing and, not entirely uncoincidentally, the highest-level US delegation to visit Solomon Islands in decades has just passed through.
In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with the highly respected Solomon Islands leader, Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr. about what this has meant for his country, and the Indo-Pacific.
Hon. Kenilorea is the son of the first Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands and was elected to the national parliament of the Solomon Islands in 2019. He is also the President of the Organization of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States Parliamentary Assembly and the Co-President of the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly.
Q: What are you concerned about looking forward?
A: The announcement that the timeline for the opening of the US embassy is going to be escalated is a really important step. Solomon Islanders are very much into feeling, seeing, touching and that sort of thing. Once it’s there, it’s real. It’s important it happens quickly because, now that this [PRC security] agreement is signed, I think there will be a flurry of Chinese activity.
During our panel discussions, [former Prime Minister] Hon. Danny Philips pretty much admitted that the signed security agreement is not far off the draft that has been leaked. That agreement talks about protecting “Chinese interests”. I don’t see any Chinese interests currently. The shops in Chinatown are really retail. And I don’t really count them as Chinese interests and investment. So I’m thinking that is for the future.
I’m expecting, perhaps, mining to come in. And that has its roots, for me at least, in one of the big announcements that Prime Minister Sogavare came back with from China after his first visit there. He announced China Railway was going to invest 800 million US dollars in Gold Ridge [a gold mine on Guadalcanal island]. It was interesting because the landowners got a bit caught off guard—they were not aware of it. That hasn’t yet quite panned out. But I think it will still, and I’m not sure whether all of that money is going to be spent on the mine or somewhere else.
And those 200 communication towers that Huawei is lined up to build. I think those will start to move faster. Also, someone showed me a signed MoU about purchasing planes from China, and upgrading airfields. That has been in the works for a while. And another thing that is so called “economic” but might be something else are the harbours. I’ve heard there was big interest in putting in a fisheries hub. We know what that means in terms of Chinese boats coming in. So, I think these activities in the near future are coming in.
Q: The US delegation met “prominent religious leaders”. Why was that important?
A: I’m happy to hear that. I was impressing upon [the US embassy advance team] that would be very important, show the values that we share, and how China is very different. Meeting faith leaders is going to be something that China can never do. And if they do it, it’ll expose them as being overtly political in terms of their approach to the church [which is very important to Solomon Islanders].
Q: The US delegation also met with “key members of the opposition”. Recent Australian delegations have only met with Prime Minister Sogavare. What does that mean?
A: Meeting with the opposition sets the US apart from the other partners here. And shows US interest in the whole nation, rather than just one regime. Perhaps other friends may not be very happy about that approach. But it’s good to see US consulting widely and willing to do their own thing, which I was very happy to hear. So I think meeting the opposition really went down well with many of our people who do not trust the Sogavare government.
Q: What should the US and other partners focus on now?
A: I think the US is on the right path, in terms of engaging directly with provincial governments, not necessarily having everything through the central government. Of course, in international cooperation such engagements will still have to go through central government. But the kinds of projects that go directly to the mass of the people in the provinces, can have a massive impact.
The Western province has stated that it’s concerned about the security agreement. And they are one of the most populous provinces in the Solomons—very important economically to Solomon Islands as well. So support to Western Province will be very welcome. And Guadalcanal is a natural one, I think, for the US in terms of shared history. All provinces including the city of Honiara could engage constructively with US on a number of issues. These could be quick wins in terms of some really concrete support for the provincial governments, making sure that the programs are running and impacting the people where they live.
Then continue to support stronger democracy in Solomon Islands. The continuous support for democratic institutions is key because that is under attack.
The big one is the elections [scheduled for 2023]. I can see from the [government] budget that it’s clear the government is not taking the election seriously, because they haven’t put adequate budget aside for the preparations for next year’s elections. For me, that is the biggest indicator. I was looking out for those numbers. And I don’t see them. So if US [or other democratic countries] can step in to say look, if money is an issue, we’re here to help because it’s important for democracy. That will be massive.
Also a concrete thing that shows commitment to democracy is to upgrade and finish the parliament’s building complex. It was US built, but there’s supposed to be a library, we’re having problems even with the sound system and air conditioning, and everything’s run down outside of it. A commitment to that particular institution, a physical commitment, right at the heart of democracy in Solomon Islands is important. I’m hearing China wants to do that as well.
We also need increased people-to-people connections with likeminded countries. For example, education and availability of scholarships, both academic and sports. And study visits for both national, provincial level leaders and business leaders. Yes US, but India would be great as well. We lack capacity in tertiary education, and students might want to take courses that aren’t available here. The pivot towards India is something I personally would like us to move towards. I think India has a lot to offer.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think the whole saga of the PRC security deal has proven the Sogavare government cannot be trusted. And they are kindred spirits with Beijing. They say one thing and do the opposite. That is something we have known all along, us Solomon Islanders. US Vice President Mike Pence knew about it in 2019, when Sogavare made a commitment to come and see him before the switch from Taiwan to China. And that never happened. Sogavare was a no show. And now the secrecy of this agreement just underscores that Solomon Islands and China—or at least the two regimes of the Sogavare government and the CCP—are working together. That is not good for us in the Solomons as a young democracy. And definitely not good for the region. And also for our friends beyond the region as well. And the world, really.