International Relations

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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
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Edward Acton Cavanough

Beyond Solomon Islands, the security pact crystallised the fears of international observers for whom documenting China’s ‘capture’ of Honiara had become a preoccupation. Throughout the rest of 2022, a cavalcade of commentators weighed in on Sogavare’s security deal, often stoking dire warnings in the Australian and international press about the country’s imminent descent into dictatorship. In August 2022 in The Australian, Cleo Paskal and Anthony Bergin coauthored an article detailing the ‘coup’ Sogavare was attempting to mount in Honiara. The catalyst for the article was Sogavare’s absence from a World War Two commemoration. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute investigation into China’s influence in the Solomons focused on traditional and social media and attempted to examine the efficacy of China’s influence activities in the wake of the November 2021 riots.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

Five months before Suidani’s appointment as premier, there had been a similarly complicated series of negotiations in Honiara for the position of prime minister. The national election was held in April 2019, but it would be several weeks before Manasseh Sogavare emerged victorious and once again assumed control of his nation. Meanwhile, Matthew Wale’s Solomon Islands Democratic Party, with eight MPs, forged a new grouping of its own, called the Grand Coalition. In making a case for the Switch, Fugui’s committee was not recommending anything out of step with much of the international community. Irrespective of whether the ultimate decision to switch from Taiwan to China was the right one, the murky process that led to such a major policy shift created discomfort in Solomon Islands. In May 2021, as Honiara’s presence in Beijing became formalised, Fugui was appointed Solomon Islands’ first ambassador to China.

in Divided Isles
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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

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

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
Edward Acton Cavanough

On 28 June 2022, Prime Minister Sogavare took to the podium in his office. In just three days’ time, he announced that Solomon Islands’ border would be normalised. The austere immigration and customs infrastructure was still in place, despite the various new processes necessitated by Covid-19. The dilapidated, potholed road linking Henderson Airport to the capital remained unimproved. M4D’s desire to resolve the issues facing their province through formal dialogue between the Sogavare government and the Malaitan provincial government was a significant change in approach. The closest comparable case to Malaita’s is in the far west of the Solomon Archipelago, where Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville successfully voted for independence in 2019. The referendum commenced a period of negotiations between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea aimed at creating a timetable for independence.

in Divided Isles
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Edward Acton Cavanough

As the enmities between the Sogavare and Suidani governments escalated, M4D’s leadership began to revamp its pitch to Malaitans and to the country. Its early successes had seen M4D become a household name. Born on Ontong Java, a tiny atoll, administratively part of Malaita Province but located 500 kilometres to Malaita Island’s north, Makili, based in Honiara, was a stalwart of Solomon Islands’ activist scene. While environmental campaigns had become Makili’s profession, he was also a zealous campaigner against corruption in Solomon Islands, which he had been agitating against since the Mamaloni era. In Canberra, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, convened with national security advisors, who were monitoring the riots, to consider how to execute Sogavare’s request. Morrison was familiar with Australia’s security obligations and understood the political context.

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