Could Covid-19, micro-nationalism and China cause Solomon Islands to split?

Is the Covid-19 pandemic about to tear Solomon Islands apart? The sensible answer is, probably not. But the consequences of the pandemic, including jostling among China, Taiwan and even the US, certainly have the potential to destabilise the country.

Ethnic-based strife led to nearly five years of civil war from 1998 to 2003 that set people from Guadalcanal, the largest island, against Malaita, the most populous island. In a conflict more about national unity than secession, Guadalcanal forces sought to expel Malaitans living in and around Honiara. They were met with a Malaita militia protecting the right of its kinfolk to live securely in a single united country.

The pandemic is now entangling two significant sources of domestic tension: relations with the People’s Republic of China and micro-nationalism. The 2019 decision by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to reassess Solomon Islands’ relationships with Beijing and Taipei has been controversial among those concerned about the geopolitical consequences while stirring up significant domestic push-back.

Malaita’s provincial premier, Daniel Suidani, with the support of the provincial assembly, has railed against the PRC as a threat to his province, the country and global order for many reasons, including China’s communist system, atheism and ‘ambition to dominate the world’, as well as a real fear for the Solomons of debt-trap diplomacy.

Suidani’s stance enjoyed popular support and attracted the backing of the micro-nationalist Malaita for Democracy (M4D) movement, which has linked its support for the premier to a demand for Malaitan independence.

Suidani turned his preference for Taiwan into a local hot-button issue by a carefully orchestrated request for Covid assistance from Taipei, leading to a gift of soap, masks and rice to the province. Taipei argued that it responded legitimately under its global Covid people-to-people program of making aid available to those in need, even in countries without formal ties to Taiwan.

Suidani publicly thanked Taipei for the donation, referring to Taiwan as a state and the disease as the ‘Wuhan virus’, but the PRC embassy characterised the donation as ‘illegitimate, inappropriate and entirely wrong’ and criticised the display of a Taiwan flag. (Displays of the Taiwan flag contributed to fisticuffs between PRC and Taiwanese diplomats at a Taiwanese National Day event in Suva last month.)

Tensions were further heightened when a second Taiwanese donation was seized by the police, who argued that it may have breached the Sedition Act because it was included in a diplomatic pouch sent to a private citizen, Richard Olita. Olita is an adviser to Suidani who has significant ties to the M4D movement and reportedly was one of the anti-Chinese rioters who helped to burn down Honiara’s Chinatown in 2006.

The Malaita government brought legal action to force the national government to give up the donations, arguing that Taiwan hadn’t requested any special immunity for the bag or its contents.

The decision of the national government in September to allow a Chinese charter flight to land in the Solomons has further raised tensions. Unlike previous repatriation flights, this one, paid for by China, included only a few Solomon Islanders and was mostly for Chinese officials and workers.

That led an angry Suidani to renew a call for a referendum on Malaitan independence. The M4D movement protested the flight by posting demands that all Chinese citizens in Auki, the provincial capital, leave for Honiara in 24 hours.

Although quickly defused, the threat was ominously reminiscent of the ethnic riots in 2006, when hundreds of ethnic Chinese were airlifted out of Honiara by the PRC, notwithstanding the absence of diplomatic relations. Beijing has since argued for improved military capacity to effect such evacuations.

Washington has now also entered into the tense situation by presenting a US$25 million aid package to Malaita. This sum is so large (more than 50 times the total assistance to the province from all sources in 2018) that some claimed the US was using Malaita as a surrogate for opposing PRC influence in the Solomons.

The act of throwing an economic lifeline to those in Malaita pursuing a micro-nationalist agenda has worried the Solomon Islands government sufficiently that it has warned that all foreign aid must go through official channels, including approval by cabinet.

Whatever the motivation (and some saw some very sinister linkages), the aid package will help promote economic development, trade and improved natural resource management and thereby boost the sustainability of the long-neglected province.

Concerns for provincial development extend well beyond Malaita. The Western Province has threatened legal action to protect its autonomy as well as lodged complaints elsewhere regarding fairness in aid distribution. The Sogavare government has become so sensitive to such public criticism that it has now proposed banning Facebook, an act Suidani has labelled an attack on free speech.

A quarter of a century of grievances has helped to nurture the idea of Malaitan separatism, but it remained in the background of provincial politics until the switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Suidani, it appears, would have preferred a united Solomons Islands still aligned with Taipei but has been persuaded to link his cause to separatism by the M4D movement.

Nevertheless, the chances of success for the separatist movement seem low. Peter Kenilorea Jr, a Malaitan politician and son of the country’s first prime minister, argues that Suidani’s demand for a Bougainville-style independence referendum could be justified under international law as a right to self-determination but acknowledges that, politically, it would involve a long and complex process.

The experience of neighbouring Bougainville also demonstrates that even a successful independence referendum might not bring full international endorsement and support, especially from regional neighbours.

Neither Taipei nor Washington genuinely wants, or intends, to foment destabilisation in the Solomons. Canberra and Wellington are scarcely in the mood for a repeat of the 13-year intervention under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands that ended the civil war and sought to rebuild the country.

But, should the tensions escalate further, the RAMSI experience could point to a way to reduce the risk of conflict. The 2000 Biketawa Declaration, which legitimated the armed RAMSI regional intervention, also provides for conciliatory, good-faith mechanisms to defuse tensions before they reach breaking point.

The Covid crisis has raised domestic tensions by inflicting significant economic hardship on Solomon Islands. It’s been a convenient tool rather than a motivator for Malaitan separatists, who have used it to underscore their rejection of the country’s links with the PRC and to break with Honiara.

This post is part of an ASPI research project on the vulnerability of Indo-Pacific island states in the age of Covid-19 being undertaken with the support of the Embassy of Japan in Australia.