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Solomon Islands and the China Switch

This book tells the story of Solomon Islands’ China Switch, its dramatic internal and regional consequences, the political machinations that led to it, and how a handful of Solomon Islanders have used this transformative, once-in-a-generation political event to accrue and wield political power. It is the story of Manasseh Sogavare and his fateful decision to accept the Switch to China, and how it transformed the country. It is the story of Daniel Suidani, and how his manipulation of the Switch thrust him from obscurity to global relevance. Solomon Islands is also the story of the Malaitan activists who have leveraged this political shift to revive a volatile, albeit improbable, quest for independence for their island. It relates how a byzantine web of Pacific business elites changed the political course of their nation in pursuit of commercial gain. And it is the story of how seemingly powerless islanders have the capacity to radically alter the trajectory of a fragile country and a region essential to Australia’s, and the world’s, security. The Solomon Archipelago is a place of joy and beauty. At the same time, it is host to centuries of grievance and tragedy. Enmities fuelled by ancient internal rivalries, colonial dispossession and exploitation, inadequate reconstruction after the Second World War, uneven economic growth since independence in 1978, and the ethnic tensions that gripped the country between 1998 and 2003 undergird cultural, economic and political discourse in contemporary Solomon Islands.

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Edward Acton Cavanough

In the early months of the pandemic, the unknown nature of COVID-19 justifiably caused anxiety among policymakers and health professionals. In April 2020, the Solomon Islander community, seeing horrific images from Europe of morgues filling up and entire cities being locked down, increasingly feared what might be coming. As Solomon Islands’ borders remained shut, in April 2022 the author decided to take advantage of Australia’s opening up and headed abroad to find out exactly what this new Taiwanese strategy looked like on the ground. Taiwan’s audacious diplomatic efforts in Somaliland were born of necessity: with a dwindling number of allies around the world, it was left with no choice but to try to create new ones. In a response that appeared to represent the peak of the dispute between Suidani and Sogavare, the national government formally rebuked Suidani for seeking medical treatment in Taiwan.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

This introduction outlines the key concepts discussed in the chapters of this book. The book tells the story of Solomon Islands’ China Switch, its internal and regional consequences, the political machinations that led to it, and how a handful of islanders used this transformative, once-in-a-generation political event to wield political power. It is the story of Manasseh Sogavare and his fateful decision to embrace China, sending ripples all the way to Washington, D.C. While he held deep suspicions of Taiwan dating back to Taipei’s shady involvement during the Tensions, he also was sceptical of Australian intent. It is the story of Daniel Suidani, and how his manipulation of the Switch thrust him from obscurity to global relevance. Enmities fuelled by ancient internal rivalries, colonial dispossession and exploitation, inadequate reconstruction after the Second World War, uneven economic growth since independence in 1978, and the ethnic tensions that gripped Solomon Islands between 1998 and 2003.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

In 1564, the governor of Peru undertook an expedition to find this mysterious land of bounty, appointing Álvara de Mendaña de Neyra and Hernán Gallego as leads. In February 1568, they spotted the island they called Isabel. In the initial linguistic exchanges between the locals and the voyagers, the indigenous people appear to have acquired their first Spanish word: afuera, loosely translated as ‘get outside’ or ‘go away’. It was a refrain the Spanish explorers would soon hear regularly, shouted at them by Solomon Islanders who ‘wished to prevent [the Spanish] from exploring their country’. The Mendaña expedition is where the documented history of Solomon Islands commences, including the history of an island in the middle of the archipelago known locally as Savo. In the late eighteenth century, a distant world began to impose itself on the Savoans’ island home.

in Divided Isles
Edward Acton Cavanough

Like so many of the bureaucratic processes in the Solomons, catching transport around the country requires patience and creativity. Chinese immigration to Solomon Islands began as early as the late nineteenth century, albeit in very small numbers. Initially, the few dozen Chinese who came to the British Protectorate of Solomon Islands had come as labourers, following the precedent set in other British colonies and protectorates around the Pacific. As the country began its path towards independence in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese community made further efforts to assimilate: many converted to Christianity; others built schools. Malaita for Democracy, or M4D began piecing together a manifesto that it hoped would shape the Malaitan policy agenda. Although the Malaitan provincial government’s opposition to the Switch may have looked ironclad from the outset, in fact, the Suidani government’s response to the Switch was muted in the weeks after it was announced.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

When, in late 1568, Alverado Mendaña’s Spanish brigantine first set off from the north coast of Isabel to explore more of the archipelago, the conquistador had one aim in mind: finding gold. The story of Nuñez’s tentative proclamation of gold on Guadalcanal didn’t go unnoticed by those who colonised the archipelago some 250 years later. In the two decades before Japan’s successful invasion of the archipelago, British prospectors had turned their attention to the area, albeit unsuccessfully. But the British focused primarily on the development of an agricultural export economy, a logging industry, and the labour trade between its regional possessions, rather than on mining. The Gold Ridge project, in Liloqula’s view, was rife with issues, and exemplified how the normalisation of corruption had allowed poor projects to become established in Solomon Islands.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

As the political ramifications began in Taipei, on the ground in Solomon Islands, Taiwan’s aid workers had more practical concerns. After years of integrating themselves into Solomon Islands society, they had been recalled to Taiwan almost overnight. One of Taiwan’s most popular initiatives had been its scholarship program. Taiwan had funded scholarships throughout its thirty-six-year relationship with Solomon Islands. Within days of the announcement of the Switch, Chinese interests had flooded Honiara and other parts of the Solomon Islands, in some cases trying to formalise partnerships with individuals with whom they had been engaging for years. With the Tulagi agreement emerging just weeks after the Switch, commentators critical of Sogavare’s China pivot pounced on the news. For Stanley Manetiva, the Tulagi lease saga was deeply hurtful, embarrassing and politically consequential.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

When the author was first sent to Solomon Islands on assignment for The Guardian, his mind was focused on the thrill of having been dispatched to the wilds of the South Pacific to cover arguably the region’s geopolitical event of the decade. First held in 1963, the Pacific Games, formerly the South Pacific Games, have become a central feature of the Pacific’s regional integration. Each of the Pacific Islands’ twenty-two countries, territories and associated states are involved. Then, Sogavare, the Chinese ambassador and representatives from the state-owned construction firm awarded the tender were present. A beaming Sogavare grabbed two shovels and tossed the soil, declaring the 2023 Pacific Games Stadium Project underway.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

Provincial governments across Solomon Islands sit awkwardly in between the powerful national government and highly autonomous and sovereign tribal communities. New Asia was aware that the Foufoumela community had an appetite for extractive projects. For decades, communities across East Fataleka, the Malaitan ward in which Foufoumela sits, had been home to a small-scale logging operation. Fataleka is a remote area largely isolated from neighbouring regions due to a lack of accessible roads, and it is where Suidani had his political start. Fataleka was also where Knoxley Atu was now residing, after his months of legal troubles in Honiara had begun to subside. The key bureaucratic check on public spending in the province was effectively ignored, which meant some of the spending of the provincial government was technically not allowed under national law.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

In this chapter, the author explains how he reached Atori’s west-coast village of Dala to meet Knoxley Atu, an active member of the Malaita Eagle Force. To the audience, Atu related the 1927 Malaita massacre, the British crackdown on Maasina Ruru, and how the governments of Solomon Mamaloni had worked to divide Malaitans against one another. He lambasted Sogavare, whom he decried as a corrupt and malign leader with an innately anti-Malaitan agenda, and soon descended into racially charged criticism of those in Honiara. For three years, Atu and his allies had been pushing the Malaita provincial government to prohibit Chinese investment. Many Malaitans remain apathetic or uninformed about the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with China. In Fataleka, there was no evidence of any benefits from aid or investment relationships with traditional Western donors: the region remained mired in subsistence living and acute poverty.

in Divided Isles