Solomons intervention merely serves Australia’s own Pacific interests

Dec 2, 2021
ADF Solomon Islands
Australia has sent members of it defence force to the Solomon Islands in response to unrest. (Image: AP/Cpl Brandon Grey/Department of Defence)

Australian resources assigned to curb Chinese expansion would be better used to counter vaccine hesitancy and lift supply.

The geopolitical battle of the 21st century between China and the West encompasses all regions. The Pacific is not immune. In the case of the Solomon Islands, its decision in 2019 to cease a formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan had the expected outcome of strengthening bilateral ties with China. This has exacerbated the discontent on the island, especially towards the Chinese population.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare blamed “external factors” and stated that the riots were a “sad and unfortunate event, aimed at bringing a democratically-elected government down”.

When receiving the call for assistance, Australia was no doubt relieved to be contacted first, rather than China.

As Australia committed a small group of soldiers and police to the islands in order to quell the unrest, the question has to be asked: is deployment purely for the geopolitical reasons of countering the perceived Chinese threat?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unconvincingly denied this, stating: “We are seeking to take no part in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands but simply to ensure that any issues they have can be addressed in a calm and peaceful way.”

The intervention is conveniently timed for an Australian government that in recent weeks has stepped up its aggression towards Chinese hostilities. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has been especially vociferous and hawkish, which has resulted in him being accused of fanning the flames of conflict by both Chinese state media and former Australian prime minister Paul Keating.

Internally, the Australian government is worried about the Chinese influence on the Pacific nation that was the epicentre of aggressive conflict during World War II.

Since 2016, Australia has attempted to reduce Beijing’s presence with the “Pacific Step-Up” program, which the neoliberal think tank, the Lowy Institute, argues is important to “limit Beijing’s revisionist tendencies and ‘debt-trap’ Belt and Road Initiative”.

In response to a deal that Chinese telecommunication company Huawei had with the Solomon Islands to build a high-speed internet connection underwater, in 2018 Australia stepped in and agreed to fund the building of the cables. This mirrored the decision made in 2017 to fund the internet project in Papua New Guinea.

Call it what you will, it’s realpolitik

Despite the posturing of the prime minister, Australia’s insouciant regard of the Pacific region highlights how this intervention is simply an example of realpolitik. Australia has often disregarded the region when it suited, no more so than when it comes to climate change and the vaccine roll-out.

The Pacific region has become a noisy thorn in the side of the Coalition government. Despite Australia being a signatory to the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum Boe Declaration, its climate policy has put it at odds with the region. The 2019 forum resulted in Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama describing Australia’s climate talks as “very insulting and condescending”.

The reality of the region being the most catastrophically affected by climate change has not altered the Australian government’s policies, and it is often accused of doing only the “bare minimum” at the behest of fossil fuel companies. Independent think tank the Australia Institute argues that Australia is “reactive to changes in political balance” and “lacks ambition”.

This year, former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd apologised to Pacific leaders in a letter, accusing the current Australian government of  “cynical indifference” and “empty rhetoric” when it came to action on climate change.

Vaccination more effective than intervention

Within the scope of vaccine donations, Australia has once again failed to adequately serve the region it regards as its backyard. Of the 60 million doses Australia has promised to send abroad, only 15 per cent have been delivered. In the Solomon Islands, only 10 per cent of people above the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated, even less so in Papua New Guinea, which lies 4km from Australian territory.

Despite the Opposition arguing for continuation, the government has not renewed the contract with CSL, the company contracted to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia. Currently it is producing 1 million doses a week, however Crikey reported that Australia will have donated only 30 per cent of the promised 20 million doses by the middle of next year. The government has committed to supplying the region with left-over Modena and Pfizer vaccines but, with the booster program now being accelerated due to the appearance of the Omicron variant, there is a worry that the timeline will be pushed further out.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that its goal to vaccinate 40 per cent of the world’s population by year’s end will fail. Distribution and supply play a key part to this and some nations have delivered more boosters to its citizens than others have distributed first doses. This disturbing reality needs to be addressed.

Vaccine hesitancy hasn’t helped, with many in these nations being influenced by social media. In Australia, there was consternation around the AstraZeneca’s safety for people under 60 and this has undermined confidence. These issues don’t fall entirely on Australia’s shoulders but there is need for more humanitarian help in the region. After all, Australia sees itself as the dominant player in the Pacific.

Many Australian academics take it as fact that Australia is the regional superpower. Any declining salience, especially in regard to China, is seen as hugely detrimental. Hawkish advisers and think tanks argue that Australia should play a Kipling-esque role in the region. In his imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden, Rudyard Kipling argued that the United States should assume colonial control of the Philippines and, in some circles, the same is encouraged of Australia in the Pacific. Anything less is seen as weakness.

The interventionist policies that are seemingly mandated towards halting Chinese expansion in the region need to be shifted towards countering vaccine hesitancy and lifting supply. The government must also expand its climate change policies or watch the region drown. Otherwise, it is hard to counter the claim that Australia is happy to use nations in the Pacific to support its own agenda, but rarely anything more than that.

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