Sogavare is playing Australia for a sucker

There’s a moment to realise that you’re being played for a sucker. That moment has come for the Australian government in the case of the current Solomons Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.

Since the new Australian government came to power after the 21 May elections, it has engaged rapidly and deeply with Pacific island leaders and with Sogavare himself and acted in ways that address their deeply held concerns, notably on the existential challenge of climate change. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s trip to the Pacific straight off the plane from the Tokyo Quad meeting, followed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s participation in the Pacific Islands Forum meeting and the visit to Honiara by the minister for international relations and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, were welcome evidence of priority and attention to the region and its leaders.

They have also sought assurances from Sogavare that Australia will remain the Solomons’ ‘security partner of choice’, despite the Sogavare–Beijing security pact signed in April. Wong, then the opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, said this pact was ‘the worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific that Australia has seen since the end of World War II’.

Sogavare has been quick to oblige Australia’s new government, issuing many statements of reassurance that there will be ‘no Chinese military base’ in the Solomons and that Australia will indeed remain the Solomons’ security partner of choice. He seems to enjoy meeting leaders like Albanese, Wong and Conroy, receiving their support and commitments to aid and other cooperation and having smiling photos taken, even hugging, after providing his assurances.

But perhaps he enjoys even more the feeling of then doing something quite different as he opens the Solomons to deepening engagement with Beijing.

Sogavare has held on to office by buying parliamentarians’ support with money paid out by the Chinese embassy. He has a wealthy, authoritarian backer in Beijing who is comfortable with the path he is taking the Solomons on, mainly because it suits the Chinese government’s interests.

Cash splashes to buy political support are not completely new, of course. The decades of competition for diplomatic recognition between Beijing and Taipei included Taiwanese ‘constituency development’ funding. But Beijing’s agenda this time is broader and nastier than just diplomatic recognition.

Sogavare is probably delighted that we’ve developed sufficient amnesia to forget that he’s been a virulent opponent of Australia before. In 2007, he accused Australia of trying to undercut the Solomons’ sovereignty by being part of RAMSI (Operation Helpim Fren), the regional assistance mission that helped the Solomon Islands people control endemic violence and instability over more than a decade. It’s not news that he’s no friend of Australia.

In contrast, Beijing is the major supporter of Sogavare’s plan to hold the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara. He is using this two-week event as the reason to suspend the country’s constitution and not hold the election required in 2023.

Beijing is capitalising on Sogavare’s time in power to rapidly expand its political and economic presence and leverage. The cash splash to members of parliament is one example, but more disturbing are the growing commercial deals and opaque loans Chinese-state-backed firms are providing, like the recent Huawei deal to build some 161 mobile phone towers using a $96 million concessional loan from Chinese government banks.

Sogavare has been prime minister four times—in 2000–01, in 2006–07, from 2014 to 2017, and since 2019—each from an opportunity created by turmoil and instability. He clearly wants to be leader and seems unlikely to step down willingly. Xi Jinping knows that feeling well.

There seems to be a strong alignment between what Beijing wants in the South Pacific, what it’s willing to do to get it, and what we see of Sogavare’s ambitions and directions.

But there’s no such strong alignment between these interests and the interests of the Solomon Islands people or those of the broader Pacific. Instead, Sogavare’s embrace of Beijing and increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home are against his people’s interests and against the security interests of the rest of the Pacific Islands Forum countries.

That’s probably why he has been so keen to issue his loud reassurances that there’s nothing for anyone to see or worry about in the relationship he’s building with China’s ruling communist party.

Sogavare is taking the Solomons down a path that is undemocratic and centred on his continuing to hold the office of prime minister, regardless of the effects on the health of the Solomon Islands constitutional democracy.

His government is making alarming statements about press freedom in response to criticism of his actions. An ABC Four Corners report documenting some of his most serious connections to the Chinese government is one example. Sogavare resorted to accusations of racism and racial stereotyping to attack the media outfit that reported his connections and avoid dealing with the substance of the issues. He apparently is comfortable preventing further visits by independent foreign journalists.

And reacting to an editorial in a local paper expressing alarm at moves to censor the Solomons’ national broadcaster, his government said it’s the journalists themselves ‘who are a threat to freedom of press in our country, and not the government’.

This is what authoritarian regimes say and do, not what healthy democracies and their elected leaders say and do.

Maybe that’s why China’s state-owned mouthpiece, the Global Times, has endorsed Sogavare’s attack on press freedom, saying: ‘Even if the Solomon Islands’ government bans ABC reporters from entering the country, it is justified and understandable.’

That support for Sogavare’s moves to limit press freedom contrasts starkly with the stance of professional journalists. The international Public Media Alliance has called on Sogavare to respect his national broadcaster’s independence and expressed concern at the ‘government’s order for it to self-censor and only cover stories that show the country in a positive light’. The PMA used an eloquent quote from the premier of Makira-Ulawa province, Julian Maka, who said, ‘It’s very sad that media has been curtailed, this means we are moving away from democratic principles.’

The creeping tide from Sogavare’s turn to Beijing is also the best explanation for the UK and US having difficulty with naval and coastguard vessel visits to Honiara. This month, both Britain’s HMS Spey and the US Coastguard cutter Oliver Henry were unable to dock in the Solomons because its government failed to provide permission, even though both vessels were helping the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency protect local fish stocks. The Solomons has now suspended naval visits pending ‘new procedures’ being put in place. We can expect that under these new procedures, no Chinese government vessel is likely to have this kind of difficulty during Sogavare’s tenure.

Controlling the local press to limit freedom of speech and reporting, threatening to block foreign journalists from visiting if they report negatively on his government, suspending the constitution, signing a security pact with an intrusive authoritarian power, preventing friendly partners’ vessels from docking in his country and buying the support of MPs with money from that authoritarian power all add up to one simple fact: Sogavare should not have the support of the Australian government or any other democratic government while he takes the Solomon Islands people on this dangerous path.

Instead of helping Sogavare fund the Pacific Games he’s using as a pretext for suspending the constitution, the Australian government should provide no funding for this event and direct the $17 million it earmarked for it towards funding events by Solomons civil-society groups, visits to the Solomons by Australian parliamentarians and reciprocal visits to Australia by Solomons parliamentarians and provincial leaders who are not part of Sogavare’s set of MPs and leaders. Some of this funding could be added to the new money that Albanese has announced as going to increase the ABC’s Pacific reporting.

Instead of inviting Sogavare to Australia as a guest, which would give him yet another platform to provide empty assurances in return for having his profile as an elected leader endorsed by Albanese, there should be no Australian visit by Sogavare until he ends his security deal with Beijing and holds free and fair elections. That may well mean he only visits Australia again as a private citizen after he’s been voted out of office.

It’s time for the friends of Solomon Islands to engage with its people, its opposition figures in parliament and the provinces, its institutions and its leaders who believe in its constitution and its people’s freedoms. This list doesn’t include Sogavare and his set of purchased MPs.

Instead of saying that Sogavare’s bill to suspend the constitution has to work through the democratic processes of the Solomon Islands parliament, the Australian government should simply oppose this manoeuvre to suspend the Solomons’ democracy and call on Sogavare to let his people vote on who leads them.

Not doing this and waiting for Sogavare to again use Chinese cash to buy the parliamentary votes he needs is to be wilfully blind to a budding dictator. Sogavare needs to be condemned and isolated, not hugged and supported.