Flashy donations don’t pave the way to being Solomon Islands’ partner of choice

Solomon Islands is now more than 60 police vehicles and 60 semi-automatic rifles richer. In a demonstration of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s leverage of geostrategic competition, he squeezed in handover ceremonies from both Australia and China in one week. But the influx of kit has left lingering questions about the benefit of this equipment, including if sustainment costs aren’t supported. It leaves Australia in a tricky situation—how do we maintain our position as security partner of choice, manage strategic competition and ensure the best outcomes for the people of Solomon Islands?

It’s worth recalling how rapidly the Solomons’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China has changed. Honiara switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019. Since then, the relationship has entered uncharted waters with the signing of a bilateral security agreement in March 2022 to enhance security cooperation. A Chinese police liaison team has trained a cohort of officers of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force on riot control, using methods that would make Australia uncomfortable if they were used to quell civil unrest, particularly if Australian equipment were used in the process. In October, more RSIPF officers travelled to China for training.

It’s easy to see what Sogavare gets by playing Australia and China off against each other. He claims that the new vehicles and equipment—60 guns and 13 vehicles from Australia and two water cannon and 50 vehicles from China—are important for social and economic growth and for national sovereignty. But this is as much about protecting himself as it is the country—his own house was burned during the November 2021 Honiara riots, and his position as prime minister was jeopardised. Having lost faith in his security forces during the riots, he urgently wants to enhance their capabilities and have powerful friends to call on if civil disorder resumes.

Australia will have confronted some difficult questions before making this donation, which should be seen in the context of longstanding policy and not simply as a response to Chinese moves in the region. Rearmament of the RSIPF has been an ongoing collaboration with the Australian Federal Police since the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands ended in 2017. The historical basis for Australia working with the RSIPF doesn’t fully mitigate our concerns today, but Canberra would have done some due diligence. The Australian government would have been mindful of the misuse of police weapons and unprofessional police conduct during Solomon Islands’ ethnic tensions (1999–2004)—the reason most of the RSIPF is currently unarmed.

On balance, Australia’s donation to the RSIPF’s police response team was probably conducted as responsibly as it could have been. This group already holds weapons—albeit a lesser calibre than this most recent delivery—and have all been trained by Australia on how to use them. This matters, because Australian trainers combine technical skills with education on the appropriate, proportionate and lawful use of force, in line with international standards. While we can’t rely on the RSIPF to meet these standards all the time, we should be confident that officers trained by Australia will act with greater restraint than if China were training them in our stead.

Now the arms have been delivered, the pertinent question is what happens next. How do we sustain ongoing and healthy engagement with Solomon Islands in a way that truly supports its people, earns their trust and cements Australia as the security partner of choice?

Research conducted by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre shows that many people in the Solomon Islands are concerned by the foreign donations to the country’s security services. In this case, their concerns are mainly about sustainability, misuse and government priorities, not whether the material comes from Australia or China.

Analysis of 264 Facebook comments on 12 posts sharing media content relating to the Chinese and Australian aid showed that Solomon Islanders hold three key concerns: how the equipment will be sustained, how the weapons might be used, and what the government’s priorities are. Of the comments, 117 had an identifiable issue with the aid delivered, while 56 were positive (Australia = 20, China = 15, Australia and China = 3 and Solomon Islands = 18), and 91 were neutral or unrelated. Thirty percent of comments with an identifiable issue raised concerns that vehicles wouldn’t be adequately fuelled or maintained, which would fail to improve the response capability of the RSIPF in the long term; 24% were concerned about police discipline and the use of weapons by police; and 19% called for greater investment in hospitals, medicine and road infrastructure, often in lieu of additional security equipment.

If Australia wants to improve its relationship with Pacific island countries, it needs greater awareness of the Pacific’s concerns—at the government and public levels. Canberra needs a positive working relationship with Honiara, whoever the government of the day may be, but also needs to address issues important to Solomon Islands citizens—something that China isn’t as adept at doing.

Sometimes, it’s a quick fix. Concerns about the amount of security aid in comparison to infrastructure and development aid is simply an issue of messaging. Australia has provided more than $2.6 billion in development aid to Solomon Islands since 2008. It is by far the largest contributing country in the Solomons and across the region. But many of these projects are ongoing and fade into distant memory in light of attention-grabbing security kit. Australia regularly provides Solomon Islands with fuel for previously gifted vessels through its long-running Pacific Maritime Security Program, demonstrating commitment to long-term usage and benefits.

Taking a moment to reiterate the effort and importance of Australia’s other aid during a handover ceremony or in an opinion piece in local media can remind Solomon Islanders of Australia’s long-term support for their country. Finding ways to share accessible infographics like Lowy’s Pacific aid map more widely might also help.

And for more controversial Australian assistance—such as the weapons recently provided—Canberra needs to make it clearer that it has thought about what it’s doing, and to explain how it will support the RSIPF and the Solomon Islands government to ensure the best possible outcomes for the country. In this instance, Australia should be demonstrating deep integration with the RSIPF—including ongoing training for professionalism and proper use of weapons and equipment and enhancing sovereign capabilities for maintenance and sustainment of equipment.

China’s security assistance to Solomon Islands is outside Australian control. But how Australia engages Solomon Islands with its security assistance determines our partnership. As a genuine partner seeking to enhance the capabilities and resilience of our Pacific neighbours, Australia needs to continue its security engagement with Solomon Islands with the full understanding that China will also provide assistance.

Regardless of Sogavare’s wish to enhance capabilities, Australia’s knowledge of and commitment to Solomon Islands’ requirements will avoid any appearance of Australia engaging for the wrong reasons. Australia won’t win by trying to provide the flashiest donations. But through ongoing support packages, engagement with police professionalism, and working with Solomon Islands to sustain equipment, Australia provides the value proposition that China can’t compete with.