Scenes of political unrest have become increasingly common in the Solomon Islands, however current reports of rioting, destruction, and hard-line response have come as a surprise to some commentators. In contrast, those familiar with the geo-politics of the region have been warning of this for some time, stating “when, not if”.
It has been increasingly understood that the people of the Solomon Islands were approaching breakpoint. A breakpoint resulting from a government pursuing policies and alliances that have enabled exploitation of traditional land, people, economic and cultural systems by coercive actors set on their own self-interest. Factions are calling more loudly for the resignation of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare.
There has been much analysis of coercive actors at play across the Indo-Pacific islands, especially the Solomon’s. The islands have proved strategic to foreign powers for decades. They have been colonised, occupied, and transited by foreign powers including the UK, Japan and the US; whilst playing a core strategic role in the climax to the war in the Pacific. However, it is the interests of another foreign power which appears to be destabilising the post war period, that power being China.
Much of the analysis of coercive influence in the Indo-Pacific Islands has treated at risk populations as homogeneous nations; they talk of ‘Island populations’ or ‘Island nations’. However, there is another optic to be applied, that of understanding the risk to the ‘Indigenous nations of the Indo-Pacific Islands’.
The Indo-Pacific is home to the largest number of Indigenous peoples in the world, with more than 260 million, or 70 per cent of the total global indigenous population. Whilst the Solomon Islands can be considered as 95 per cent Indigenous, there is a diversity of identity, culture, and customary law across these many islands – which make for a different set of considerations, and risk analysis should be informed by these.
When observing a region so rich in culture and diversity, it is apparent varying applications of law, diplomacy, and sovereignty converge and sometimes clash due to national historic and strategic differences. Throughout the Indo-Pacific, Indigenous nations have strengths that need to be acknowledged, leveraged, and recognised as an asset to benefit their nation. But we must also recognise that vulnerabilities exist that can be exploited by coercive actors – which, if allowed to happen, can lead to scenes such as those we see in the Solomon Islands.
As macro actors play a strategic tug of war to maintain competitive advantage within the region, Indigenous populations are finding themselves having to fight for their own land and maritime rights, the protection of their surrounding environment, and in some instances their way of life.
Grey zone activity aimed at advancing a foreign nation’s interest by shaping the political, economic, and physical environment is becoming increasingly common within the Indo-Pacific. This type of activity is causing friction points between those engaging in the activity, and the Indigenous populations of that country, and rightly so. If we consider the grey zone activity that is being undertaken in the Solomon Islands, we can observe the effects that coercion and influence is having on the surrounding environment and the Indigenous peoples way of life.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands changed its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. Early on in this transition, the China Sam Group attempted to lease the island of Tulagi for oil processing, refinement, and development. Though, it was quickly realised that aspects of the China Sam Group lease were unlawful. Although the unlawful aspects of the lease were cited as procedural, analysis by the Lowy Institute revealed a very important point: ‘it becomes apparent that what is signed over for the Chinese conglomerate’s exclusive use lies well beyond the control of the provincial government. Minerals, fisheries, forests, land – these are all the domain of customary landowners with the central government as an abstract landlord for registered land’.
In the two years since the change in diplomatic allegiances, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been tightening its grasp on the country. Despite the Tulagi lease being overturned, other Chinese funded projects have been approved throughout the Solomon Islands. In proximity to these projects, Chinese companies have been engaging in destructive resource extraction, displaying authoritarian tendencies, conducting economic coercion, and engaging in corrupt activity.
The outlier of this trend is the province of Malaita, which has been resisting Chinese grey zone activity and foreign influence. Malaita and its Indigenous population have become the front line for political aggression from China and – disturbingly – portions of the Solomon Islands Government that have come under foreign influence.
In Malaita, Premier Daniel Suidani has continuously voiced his dissatisfaction with the recognition of China over Taiwan, and he refuses to have any Chinese investment or development within his province that may risk the provinces sovereignty. MP Suidani and the people of Malaita are very aware of the threat they face to their culture, sovereignty, and land rights. However, in response to this action, pro-CCP Government Officials attempted to table a vote of no confidence against the Premier. While the motion of no confidence had eleven allegations against Suidani, lead up events and external pressures clearly show that Chinese diplomats are the driver behind the motion.
Last month, in a response to the political pressure to oust Suidani, thousands marched on the assembly on the day of the vote, which ultimately led to the motion being withdrawn. A win for the population of Malaita and MP Suidani, but the cost of their defiance is yet to be seen.
As the people of Malaita defend against destructive foreign investment, Rennell Island provides a distressing observational case of foreign influence going relatively unchecked. Almost as if black and white, Rennell Island is split between a UNESCO heritage site on the East and extensive mining, logging, and resource extraction sites on the West. Rennell Island has been exposed to widespread environmental damage from resource exploitation, which has not benefited the Indigenous population as promised.
Despite the extensive environmental damage, the Indigenous population of Rennell island are struggling to have their grievances heard, and this is set to continue until 2033 when the lease ends. Malaita, Rennell Island, and Tulagi are only three examples of how this activity affects the indigenous population in the Solomon Islands.
Letter of the law
When considering the foreign activity and interference in the Solomon Islands, companies stand firmly behind the argument that land has been leased through the Indigenous landowners, and the central Government followed the correct bureaucratic processes to achieve such an outcome. While this may have a resemblance of truth at face value, the agreement is littered with broken promises and flow-on effects that were potentially unforeseen by the Indigenous population at the time.
The most prominent example of this is the promise of job prospects for the Indigenous population and hence an increase in quality of life. But the reality of these activities is that many of the jobs get allocated to foreign workers. Unfortunately, as these projects give preference to foreign workers, not only do locals not get the job opportunities that were promised, but the local economy gets negatively distorted.
Debates over sovereignty and law continue between Solomon Island Government representatives and Indigenous populations at risk of losing their way of life. As what is best for the Island nation is debated, what is clear is that the Indigenous population is being disproportionately affected by this activity, and there is no mechanism in place to have grievances heard or addressed seriously.
Suppose grey zone activity continues in the Solomon Islands, in that case, it will exacerbate the displacement of Indigenous populations, lead to higher levels of unemployment and poverty, and increase civil unrest. Furthermore, Indigenous identity and culture may be diluted, as companies with no regard for Indigenous way of life exploit the Island nation and its people.
The Solomon Islands only provides a single case study as macro actors continue to expand their influence in the Indo-Pacific, more work needs to be done to understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of Indigenous communities and nations faced with grey zone threats. We have seen the positive impact of customary land rights and the strengths that exist in Indigenous peoples claiming such rights.
Moving forward, Australia should be facilitating a deeper understanding of the strengths and vulnerabilities of indigenous communities to resist coercive influence throughout the Indo-Pacific. We should be drawing on our own rich history and the knowledge of our own Indigenous leaders to shape the dialogue and help our nearest neighbours protect their culture, identity, community, and way of life.
Note: This article was written by Damian Mutton and Narelle Wilson on behalf of the National Institute for Security Resilience (NISR).