The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial The Unwisdom of the Solomon Islands. Written by the Editorial Board, this opinion piece focused on the Honiara’s decision to pause international naval ship visits while updating protocols. What the editors failed to mention was at the time of their writing the USNS Mercy was docked in Honiara and that Pacific Partnership 2022 was conducting medical clinics and assisting with the surgical back log cases in Honiara, Malaita and Gizo. A recent New York Times article covering the parliament vote to delayed elections framed it as a Chinese influence.
These news stories are examples of the media feeding potential western militarization of the Pacific Region. That is not where the geopolitics of the region should go.
Since the April announcement of the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China virtually every event in the country has come under a geopolitical microscope as a regional threat or snub. This includes the “denial” of a port visit for Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry, and the constitutional amendment to delay the 2023 elections that was just passed by parliament.
As an American physician who has worked in Solomon Islands for over 18 years, I admit these events are concerning and have been made more so by the lack of transparency on part of the Solomon Islands government. If one looks at history in the region, however, we see that this is hardly new. Prime Minister Sogavare is currently in a position where he can leverage the US and Australia vying for favor in order to counter China.
This is not a new strategy for him. Mr. Sogavare became Prime Minister following the June 2000 coup during which he threatened to switch ties from Taiwan to China in order to garner US$40 million from the Taiwanese government to fund payouts and compensations. During the same period he also drafted an constitutional amendment bill that would suspend the national election scheduled for 2001 for one year. Unlike today, Mr Sogavare did not have a majority backing and the amendment failed.[i] The memories of an electorate, the media and foreign relations people can be short and this can result in missing pertinent governing patterns. This is not unique to Solomon Islands as we see this in the US as well. Recalling past events falls upon the people and the media to accurately refresh memories.
Following the UN General Assembly, the White House will host Pacific Island leaders. A great deal of emphasis is being placed upon this two-day summit. To date PM Sogavare has signaled he will attend. Based upon past high-level visits to Honiara, President Biden must be prepared for the possibility that this meeting could fail to yield any new results or change current diplomatic relations. A course correction may be necessary.
The US must recognize it is time to change their development partnership tact from trying to interpret the Solomon Islands government’s actions and move their efforts toward interacting with the people of Solomon Islands. With more high-level State Department visits coming up its time to sit down, share a drink of bush lime and talk (tok tok in pijin) with people from all walks of life. Visiting diplomats must travel to the Gizo in the Western Province and to Auki in Malaita, the two most populated areas outside of Honiara, in order to hear views of those outside of the capital. Discussions need to be open-ended and not orchestrated through the use of lead in questions asked of prescreened participants. Questions like “What are you most concerned about?” “How can the US best assist Solomon Islands?” In addition, there must be an open invitation to the local media and press to attend and report on any US aid discussions. These types of personal interaction will help the US learn what the views, sentiments and needs are within the population. This type of approach can result in meaningful and potentially powerful information upon which to reframe regional focused diplomacy.
In a 2020 report entitled Pacific Perspectives on the World Tess Newton Cain at The Whitlam Institute did just that. She and her colleagues conducted face to face surveys in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji individually and in small groups in order to understand people’s views on Australian Government Foreign Policy. The results of the survey are directly applicable to US policy development as well. Participants in the survey expressed a desire for quality relationships, not quantity. Emphasis was placed on relationships that put the concerns of Pacific peoples on a par with those of development partner country, that reached beyond the narrow bands of government and civil society, that prioritized local ownership and that recognized shared histories and identities.
The findings from this survey were profound and eye opening. I do not believe US foreign policy representatives have ever done a survey like this before and yet it is so basic, so human. Should US representatives choose to engage directly with Solomon Islanders from all walks of life the answers to open ended questions can guide future foreign policy offerings, inform foreign representatives of what they do not know and even make them uncomfortable on how the US is seen. The US might learn we are far less consequential than we believe we are.
If our foreign affairs representatives are not willing to meet face to face with the people then they must read the Solomon Islands news feeds and the comments to the stories. One recent story in the Solomon Star reported that the New National Referral Hospital (NRH) was 10 years away. In that story the reasons given by the Minister for Health and Medical Services was land ownership issues including moving squatters and removing unexploded ordinances (UXOs) from the site. Comments to the story were largely critical of the failure of government to prioritize health over other competing investments like cell towers and the Pacific Games stadium. Plans for moving the NRH have been in the works since 2014 shortly after the flash floods that hit northern Guadalcanal. There is no lack of support for moving the hospital by citizens and the medical staff doctors and nurses. The problem with relocating NRH is a failure of the government to prioritize it.
The same is true when one discusses UXOs with people from Solomon Islands. Most can tell you a story of someone who was injured or killed by an inadvertent detonation of an 80 year old WWII ordinance. These are the concerns the people of Solomon Islands express, and the US and other development partners must hear them.
During his testimony before United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission Professor Alan Tidwell, Director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University offered advice on how to best address US reframing of foreign policy in the Pacific Region. “The United States could liaise with American churches to learn from their ongoing involvement in the Pacific” and “work with Americans of Pacific Island heritage to create a formal advisory council to help inform and guide engagement” in the region.
If US and other members of the Partners in the Blue Pacific limit their contacts in Solomon Islands to only those in government, they will see a skewed and manipulated view of the needs of the people. They will see the needs of the government. It is time for the US to change its approach toward involvement in the Solomon Islands from hegemony to friendship. The way to do that is to be willing to sit down with people from different provinces and tok tok honestly and earnestly over a lot of bush lime juice.
[i] Jonathan Fraenkel (2004). The Manipulation of Custom: From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands. Wellington NZ: Victoria University Press, 130.
Eileen Natuzzi is an American Physician and Public Health Epidemiologist with over 18 years of experience working in Solomon Islands.