Foreign Minister Penny Wong undoubtedly expected a cooler reception than her three previous visits to the Pacific when she landed in Honiara last Friday.
The Solomon Islands government website did not even list the Australian minister’s visit – but it did take note of the first visit of a Saudi Arabian tourism minister, which took place the same day. With this visit, Wong walked a diplomatic rope to which no senior minister in the previous government seemed prepared.
Salomon Islands leaders have had a very busy schedule lately, as highlighted by the Solomon Star newspaper. It said Wong was the latest foreign figure to arrive on the coast of Solomon Island after a number of “high-level visits by the US, Japan and China recently, before and after the signing of the security treaty”.
The security pact in question is the one signed on April 20 between China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and the Solomon Islands’ foreign minister, Jeremiah Manele. Manasseh Sogavare, Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, explained that the riots of November 2021 left his government “no option” but to enter into such a security agreement to “plug the gaps that exist in our security agreement with Australia”. What these “gaps” are, he did not say.
Since that signing, the entire Pacific has shifted in numerous ways. In her first month in office, Wong was very busy trying to reduce its impact.
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She has achieved some victories with Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Australia also helped with the rapprochement at the Pacific Islands Forum, which revived after last year’s stress test, when one-third of its members threatened to leave. It was repulsed with a special meeting in Suva on June 7, with Micronesian leaders being flown there by Australian planes.
The biggest win so far, for which Wong can take some credit, was for her work ahead of the May 30 meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. Here, the ten nations that recognize China have not jointly signed on to become “China-Pacific Island” countries. (Federated State of Micronesia President David Panuleo brought the region together with a moving letter that immediately became a classic text.)
A whirlwind multinational visit by Wang before and after the May 30 meeting added incentives to work more closely with China through numerous bilateral agreements.
Wang spent most of his time traveling in the Solomon Islands. The effect of his exuberant welcome by Sogavare, summarized in the photo of the pair joining arms, indicates the “iron-clad” ties that the two leaders are forging between their nations.
In addition to the game-changing Framework Security Agreement, the Solomon Islands and China “reached an eight-point consensus” during Wang’s visit.
It’s a template agreement that Wang had already shopped in Asia in 2021, tailored to national specifications and concerns. In the case of the Solomon Islands, co-operation on “climate change” and “marine protection” is mentioned.
Given all that China Sogavare and its political allies have offered – to the great detriment of the nation, according to opposition leader Matthew Wale, who has claimed that the security deal is “a personal agreement to protect the prime minister” – what can Penny Wong offer?
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On her visits to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, because she was not a member of the Morrison government that stuck to its coal power and climate policies, Wong traveled many miles. This is the most important issue facing the region, which was recently repeated in a passionate speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue by Fiji’s Minister of Defense and Policing, Inia Bakikoto Seruiratu. The Solomon Islands are no exception.
That said, not being a Morrison government minister did not bring Wong very far into Honiara. As she indicated she would), Wong announced more vaccine donations and an extension of the very popular (and much-needed) labor scheme, the topic on which she received the most questions at her press conference.
She also visited a school and ate lunch together women leaders), which would have raised the urgent need for improved medical facilities). In particular, it appears that Wong did not meet Wales and other Sogavare opponents.
Very subtly, Wong offered an alternative to the China road. Unlike Wang’s visit, which severely limited press coverage, Wong encouraged it, no doubt in the hope that the word would spread as it did. allegedly) in other parts of the Pacific.
But what about “our shared security interests”, as Wong called it? It has received little intervention in Honiara, as Sogavare will not back down from the China-Solomon Islands agreement. In the election campaign, Wong described the deal as “the worst foreign policy mistake since World War II”.
Many expect China to build a naval base, as apparently happens inside Cambodia). However, Sogavare assured Wong and others that this would not happen. What can happen is that maritime militias appearing as fishing vessels, which China used with great effect in the South China Sea, will slowly build a Chinese military presence if there is no change of leadership and direction in the Solomon Islands not.
The recent “dangerous” confrontation between a Chinese fighter jet and an Australian Air Force aircraft in the South China Sea on May 26, the day Wong began her visit to Fiji, is another sobering example of tactics that could move south.
While Wong’s visit did not yield major victories, it did not make matters worse. She has received reassurances, but given what Sogavare has recently signed with China, there is a clear lack of connection between words and deeds. What Wong did do is point another way forward for Sogavare’s significant opposition.
In the coming week, a multilateral Pacific Islands effort will be announced in Washington DC involving the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and France.
Given this, it is almost certain that the rate of visits to the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations will increase.