In the wake of the China-Solomon Islands pact, Australia must rethink its relationship with the Pacific
Like the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano that triggered a huge tsunami and sent shockwaves around the world when it erupted on January 15, the recently signed security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China has also triggered geopolitical convulsions of immense proportions.
The source of the spectacular volcanic eruption visible from space came from deep below the surface. Likewise, the controversial security agreement and Australia’s alarmed reaction to it also go down deep in history.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has repeatedly described the deal with China as an assertion of sovereignty. (Critics say the opposite.) China has added to that rhetoric by accusing the Australian government of “disrespectful colonialism” in its failed attempts to dissuade Sogavare’s government from formalizing the deal.
Still, Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended Australia’s response, saying his government did not want to repeat the “long story” of telling Pacific nations what to do. Morrison added,
I’m not going to act like the old administrations that treated the Pacific as an extension of Australia.
Morrison is absolutely right about one thing – there is a long history shaping the recent deal. But were the Solomons treated as an extension of Australia? Did Australia exercise colonial power over the nation? More importantly, how can Australia correct past mistakes and move forward given the new regional reality?
19th century sugar plantations
Britain colonized the Solomon Islands from 1893. Unlike British New Guinea, where Britain transferred colonial control to Australia after Federation in 1901, the Solomons remained under British control until in 1978, when the islands gained their independence.
That Britain took control of the Solomons at the end of the 19th century was a comfort to Australians in a way that echoes the present. At the time, Australia was deeply “concerned” about the “great powers […] now established in the South Seas within days sailing distance of eastern Australia, particularly Queensland,” wrote the Courier Mail from Brisbane.
That’s a shame […] that the colonial statesmen of old had not had enough foresight to grasp the importance of these South Seas territories and secure them, for their strategic as well as productive value.
And in words that sound remarkably like those being articulated now, the article predicts “we’ll have to spend millions […] because of the proximity of the bases of possible hostile operations”.
The “great powers” in question in 1898 were France, which attempted to control all the islands south of the Solomons (now Vanuatu and New Caledonia) and Germany, which had claimed the arc of northern islands from the Solomon Islands to New Caledonia. Guinea (excluding British New Guinea in the southeast).
Australian politicians had aspired to have Britain control all the South Pacific islands on their behalf from the 1870s. This was articulated by the Australian Monroe Doctrine, which held that Australia, backed by Britain Brittany, presided exclusively in his region. France and Germany disputed it in the 19th century, but the notion persisted with Australian security concerns.
Although Australia did not formally colonize the Solomons, Australians exercised colonial powers there in other ways. Most egregious and devastating was the recruitment of labour, which began in the islands around the 1870s.
It is estimated that around 19,000 Solomons worked on Queensland’s sugar cane plantations before most were repatriated in 1902. Recruiters sparked cycles of violence in which white people were killed, and then these killings followed. avenged by official and unofficial punitive expeditions.
During – and after – the Second World War
A small number of traders and planters, many from Australia, established businesses in the islands. Missionaries also came. But it was not until the Battle of the Solomons, which took place from August 1942 to December 1943, that Solomon Islands suffered colossal intrusions into their island homes.
Some Australians took part in this epic episode, but it was mainly American forces that fought to stop the Japanese advance on Australia. The importance of these islands to Australia’s security has been horribly demonstrated.
After the war, and with rapid decolonization, Australian politicians thought about how this wave of independence would affect the islands and how Australia could shape this change to preserve its security.
The idea of a “Melanesian Federation” has been suggested. This would link Dutch New Guinea (which became part of Indonesia in 1969), Papua New Guinea and “British Solomons”. But this idea rested on the adhesion of the new nations. They do not have.
Another idea was to incorporate New Guinea, and possibly the Solomons as well, as Australia’s “seventh state”. The future Australian Governor-General John Kerr clearly stated in 1958 the sticking point of this guarantee of security. Australia should have faced “racial issues” which “we had to resolve on the basis of equality and genuine acceptance of New Guineans in Australia”.
These ideas did not materialize and many Pacific nations remained closed to economic opportunities that would have vastly improved lives and permanently linked Australia to Pacific nations through transnational communities.
Economy is key
The root causes of Solomon Islands’ problems since independence lie in the economy. Australia may have played a leading role in peacekeeping through the RAMSI mission from 2003 to 2017, but it has not taken bold action on economic issues.
Almost 13% of Solomon Islands live below the poverty line and only 70% have access to electricity. China now appears to offer an economic panacea that Australia has failed to offer.
Australia needs to shake off its longstanding aversion to Melanesian migration. Economic (rather than racial) exclusion is now the barrier preventing Pacific Islanders from entering Australia. Communities came through “the New Zealand route”, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and settled in Australia. They have created a vital remittance economy which has been even more important during COVID with the collapse of island economies.
Very few Australian residents are from the strategic islands that surround northern Australia. If people from these countries come to Australia, it is through temporary means such as educational programs or the Pacific Labor Scheme, which allows employment in butchery, agriculture, trades and cooking, hospitality and cares.
Recently, this scheme has received terrible publicity, with many workers claiming to have been subjected to “slavery-like conditions”, reminiscent of the history of plantation labor in Queensland.
Now that the geopolitical situation has become precarious, Australian politicians are once again thinking about the islands and the need for major adjustments in the ways of doing things. A parliamentary committee reported in March 2022, suggesting ideas for free association agreements, similar to those the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia have with the United States. He also suggested more Pacific-friendly migration policies like New Zealand’s. The impacts of climate change will aggravate all the pressures of life on the Pacific islands in the years to come.
Australia must take bold steps to strengthen its relationship with the Pacific and protect its strategic interests. Taking a humanitarian approach and integrating with the Pacific Islands is not only right – it is also the best way to support Australia’s interests and shed its colonial heritage.