China on the mind with Scott Morrison in Solomon Islands, but there is more to discuss

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Looking out for China: Scott Morrison and Manasseh Sogavare will meet in Honiara.

There’s an old saying in Honiara, Solomon Islands’ capital: “You can tell a drink-driver from a mile away … they drive straight”.

Kukum Highway, the capital’s main road, was once so littered with potholes — so the saying goes — that local police just targeted cars driving straight over them, rather carefully around. 

But that old joke doesn’t have the same ring to it these days.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison is driven down Kukum Highway after touching down in Honiara on Sunday — for what is the first visit of an Australian prime minister since Kevin Rudd in 2008 — he’ll feel only a few incidental bumps.

The Kukum Highway just got a makeover — and a couple of brand-spanking new bridges to boot. 

But this project is a little different from most sparkling new infrastructure in the Pacific. 

The Kukum Highway upgrade was funded and built by Japan.

The 2017 opening ceremony for part one of the Japan-funded road upgrade

In fact, along the way into town Mr Morrison will drive past specialist wings at the local hospital funded by Taiwan. 

He’ll pass the multipurpose indoor stadium which New Zealand is planning to upgrade. 

And he’ll look over the famous Iron Bottom Sound, the site where the new Australian-funded and politically potent $137 million Sydney to Honiara subsea internet cable is set to land.

One big political powerhouse in the region is missing from the list: China.

A minefield of ‘what ifs’

Solomon Islands is one of six Pacific Island countries — and by far the biggest — that holds diplomatic links with Taiwan, not its big brother and neighbour to the west.

And it is a fact is not lost on Beijing. 

Chinese officials have been actively courting Solomon Islands’ politicians to get rid of Taiwan and sign up to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, just like its Pacific Island neighbours Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. 

The Chinese Ambassador for Fiji Qian Bo even told journalists in Suva this month Solomon Islands can be turned for the better “overnight” if that were to happen. 

So it is no surprise that this potent geo-political situation has framed Mr Morrison’s visit, with some commentators pitching it as a lobbying effort to convince newly crowned Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to stick with Taiwan.

Mr Sogavare, now in his fourth separate stint as Prime Minister after being controversially re-elected last month, has said publicly he is reviewing the Taiwanese relationship.

A crowd of protesters on the newly opened China Town bridge in Honiara.

It creates a minefield of “what ifs” for the region, as Chinese influence grows

But in reality, Mr Morrison’s visit means more — much more. 

“It’s not all about China,” Lowy Institute Pacific Islands program director Jonathan Pryke told the ABC this week.

“Obviously the geo-political situation frames an element of this visit.

“But is incredibly significant and, in fact, historic, that the first overseas trip by an Australian Prime Minister post-election is to the Pacific.

“It’s not a tokenistic effort. It’s more than that.”

Solomon Islanders are huge soccer fans and come out in force for national games.

Mr Pryke said, in reality, Mr Morrison would have likely visited Papua New Guinea on the way to London for D-Day commemorations before travelling to Singapore and the G20 summit in Osaka.

But the political turmoil that had engulfed PNG this week most likely halted those plans. 

In a statement this week, Mr Morrison said the Pacific was “front and centre” of Australia’s strategic outlook and the trip would show the Pacific Step-Up program — announced in 2017 — “in action”.

He will be accompanied by Alex Hawke, newly-minted Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

A long-term relationship 

On the ground in Honiara, finding someone aware of “Step Up” would be a tough ask.

Locals who spoke to the ABC said Mr Morrison’s impending visit only created a minor ripple, particularly as it was framed around the China-Taiwan conflict.

Other more politically savvy locals questioned his climate change policies in a country where islands are, quite literally, disappearing from the map

Some said they hoped the visit would convince local politicians to stop “dancing with the dragon” and focus instead on lobbying Australia to continue its support of development issues such as health, youth unemployment and governance.

But Australia’s relationship with Solomon Islands, both historically and today, extends well beyond today’s Pacific tug-of-war with China.

Next month marks two years since the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) left the country after its $2.8 billion, 14-year mission to restore peace after the civil conflict known as “the tensions” kicked off in 1998. 

Rudd visits Australian troops in Solomon Islands.

Australia is by far the biggest aid donor to the country, pumping in an estimated $198.3 million in 2018-19.

That includes funding for almost 100 skills-based volunteers in areas such as health, law and education through the Australian Volunteers International program — a program I was lucky enough to be a part of in Honiara in 2017.

Australia’s role in RAMSI is a legacy that is remembered by all Solomon Islanders, and will be into the future.

So much so there are many now-teenage boys — and even some girls — named Ramsi in tribute to the peacekeeping force.

Children jumping off the jetty at Gizo, in the pristine Western Province of Solomon Islands.

Best approach for Morrison

The April riots in the capital following the country’s general elections did contribute to some diplomatic nervousness locally. But the local police’s response — and peace since the April event — was seen as a signal of its maturity.

The country is a critical partner for Australia in the region, and one that is facing many development challenges ahead.

It is why Mr Morrison’s trip, as Mr Pryke has suggested, means more than just “China”.

According to Mr Pryke, the best thing Scott Morrison could do during his meeting with Mr Sogavare is sit and listen.

“And I hope that’s what he does,” he said.

“This is a part of the world where we want to be a leader, to lead positively and genuinely.”

Here’s hoping there’s no diplomatic potholes on the road ahead.

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