Planning ahead for Solomon Islands’ Pacific Games

Honiara’s hosting of the Pacific Games is fast approaching. As the November event draws closer, there’s heightened concern—both in Solomon Islands and abroad—about how the games might affect the city’s security. Australian assistance will be on full display and, although the games may be less of a flashpoint than feared, Australia still needs to prepare for a range of security possibilities.

The 2023 Pacific Games will take place across Honiara from 19 November to 2 December, after being postponed earlier in the year due to Covid-19-related delays in the preparations. Some 5,000 athletes from across the region will compete, and another 5,000 people are expected as visitors for the duration of the event.

The Solomon Islands government is receiving financial assistance from a range of partners to support the games, including significant economic and infrastructure support from China. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare sees the games as a chance to showcase his government’s success and says he expects the event to bring in $60 million in tourism revenue—a feat some critics don’t believe can be achieved. In addition, Sogavare will use the games to demonstrate the value of his government’s friendship with China.

But some are concerned that any violence during the games could lead to an increased Chinese security presence being invited in to protect Chinese-built infrastructure. Beyond the games, there has also been speculation that Sogavare might use such an incident to further delay a national election that could see him lose power.

There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that Sogavare intends to further delay the election or maintain power in Solomon Islands through undemocratic means. He is a highly experienced politician and, after being appointed prime minister four times in his career, he could very well take the top job again without interfering in the electoral process.

As agreed by Sogavare and Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, Australia will keep its security contingent in place in Honiara throughout the games and through to June 2024. This timeline includes the election, which was originally scheduled for late 2023 but postponed so that Honiara could focus on the games.

However, Australia should consider the possibility of Honiara’s security situation deteriorating. Canberra is likely already preparing for worst-case scenarios but there are other, less obvious possibilities that also deserve consideration.

The Solomon Islands–China security agreement is a potential wildcard. The agreement—which has caused apprehension throughout the Pacific region—provides Honiara with a formal path to requesting China’s security assistance and could see a much larger Chinese security presence take root in Solomon Islands.

Since the deal’s signing in March last year, the looming possibility that Australia would be called upon to provide security in tandem with China has put Canberra on edge. If a Chinese presence were requested, there would be no interoperability or avenue for initial deconfliction between the Solomons International Assistance Force (SIAF)—the grouping of Australian, New Zealand and Fijian forces—and Chinese security personnel. Their aims would differ significantly, with the SIAF focused on assisting the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) in maintaining broader peace and security and protecting the population, and a Chinese force likely focused on protecting Chinese assets, infrastructure and interests, potentially with a heavier hand.

If that happens, there’s no friendship high road that needs to be taken, and Australia should cooperate with China only as much as is needed to deconflict operations. While Australia will be respectful of Solomon Islands’ sovereign decision-making, it should also be prepared to uphold its values. Hypothetically, individuals—whether members of the public or of the SIAF—could be injured by Chinese security forces or Chinese-trained RSIPF officers accidentally or in retaliation during a security response. In such an event, it’s unlikely that Australia would volunteer to withdraw when, for decades, it has been dedicated to supporting peace in Solomon Islands, but that may not be Australia’s choice to make. If Solomon Islands decides that Australia hasn’t met expectations or is no longer needed to maintain peace and stability, the SIAF may be asked to leave early.

The value of Australia’s security presence is clear. Australian forces have helped the SIAF achieve relative peace since the November 2021 Honiara riots. Should the entire SIAF withdraw, there would be little opportunity for Solomon Islands’ democratic partners to guide the actions of the RSIPF, dramatically increasing the risk that tensions could escalate into conflict.

A hypothetical Australian departure could also be a step on a pathway that—in combination with further election deferrals—leads to a Chinese security presence in Solomon Islands that upholds an undemocratic leader and suppresses the population. It could open the door to a foreign security force likely to use heavy-handed tactics to achieve China’s strategic goals, not lasting peace. In such a situation, escalating public tensions or riots could then be used as a pretence to expand that presence further.

Australia must do what it can to prevent such a scenario by continuing to provide successful security assistance through strong coordination with the RSIPF and demonstrating its understanding of Honiara’s security environment while respecting the Sogavare government’s sovereignty and autonomy. But Canberra should also consider another dangerous possibility. Out of fear of stepping back and allowing China in, Australia could be the one left upholding Sogavare as an undemocratic leader.

As it stands, there’s no reason to assume that Sogavare will see the need to call in Chinese security forces pre-emptively. But even after a successful Pacific Games that required no Chinese presence, there’s still a scenario where Sogavare’s parliament might again postpone the national election. That could trigger protests and rioting with little warning, and the SIAF and RSIPF would rightly immediately focus on peace and stability in Honiara and the safety of Solomon Islanders.

But in the aftermath, Australia would have to grapple with providing security protection to a leader who was suppressing his people’s right to vote. Knowing that an Australian withdrawal would probably lead to a Chinese security presence in Solomon Islands, Canberra could find itself caught between two highly undesirable outcomes. While the Pacific Islands Forum should lead the way in dealing with undemocratic leaders in the region, Australia and its SIAF partners should be considering where their red lines sit because they may have to balance maintaining peace with promoting democracy.

Solomon Islands’ security environment is stable for now, and the Pacific Games may proceed without a hitch. Regardless, Australia’s prior preparation on scenario planning will be an important factor in any high-pressure emerging security situation.