More of the Same on China from Newly Elected Solomon Islands Prime Minister

Jeremiah Manele’s appointment as Solomon Islands’ new Prime Minister marks a change in style from his volatile predecessor, but on matters of substance it’ll be more of the same for now. The former foreign minister is a seasoned performer, not prone to the sort of outbursts for which Manasseh Sogavare became infamous. But he was a key player in Sogavare’s switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, and its controversial security pact with Beijing that continues to worry Australian and US officials. Manele was Sogavare’s pick for the job, and declared before Thursday’s parliamentary ballot that Solomon Islands’ foreign policy would continue unchanged under his leadership. He said the country would remain “friends to all, enemies to none”. Its formulation used by a number of other Pacific Island states. But it conveniently overlooks Solomon Islands’ seismic shift in its international outlook under the Sogavare government.  Its “look north” policy, embraced by Manele, says the Solomon Islands’ economic future depends on China, rather than its traditional partners like Australia.

That’s not a huge stretch, given China’s economic clout. But it has been accompanied by Solomon Islands’ almost complete rejection of Australia and the US as trustworthy partners. Sogavare ingested Beijing’s talking points, spewing them out regularly with his own special brand of invective. The former prime minister was happy to take aid from Canberra, playing nice on the rare occasions he had to stand next to a visiting Australian minister. But the goodwill from such visits was always short-lived, and he routinely railed against Australia, accusing it of coercing and belittling his country. In one memorable speech, he said foreign critics of his security pact with China were treating his country like “kindergarten students walking around with Colt .45s in our hands”. In fact, that was exactly how Sogavare behaved. To Western counterparts, and even other Pacific leaders, he was regarded as unpredictable and a danger to the established regional order.

Manele is an altogether different sort of character. In a former life he was Solomon Islands’ Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and also served as a senior public servant. He is viewed by Australia as someone it can work with in good faith. While Manele is committed to maintaining his country’s China-friendly policies, he knows how much Solomon Islands has isolated itself from traditional partners. This offers Australian officials an opportunity to start afresh. But China is already deeply enmeshed in the country’s political fabric and won’t easily give up its Solomon Islands beachhead in the regional battle for influence. Its money flows to friendly MPs and their constituents and its propaganda is pumped into the country’s news feeds. Only time will tell whether Manele is able to find a new and more balanced settling point in its ties with both China and Australia that will restore Canberra’s confidence in the bilateral relationship.

Source: The Australian

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