By Matthew Knott
When Anthony Albanese met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji in July, the Australian Prime Minister had good reasons to be wary.
Just three months earlier, Sogavare signed a wide-ranging security pact with China, raising alarm Beijing could establish a military base just 2000 kilometres away from northern Australia. In a rare case of foreign policy playing a central role in an Australian election campaign, Sogavare and Scott Morrison traded barbs as polling day neared.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong called the failure to stop the China-Solomons security agreement “the worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II”.
Now that Wong and Albanese are in power, the mercurial Sogavare has become their challenge to navigate.
The leaders’ first meeting in Fiji was strikingly friendly, with Sogavare hugging Albanese in front of the media. Later, Sogavare described Australia and Solomon Islands as “family” and said Australia remains the nation’s security partner of choice. But anyone interpreting the encounter as the end of tensions between the nations was badly mistaken. Family members, after all, can feud viciously as well as support each other.
In an extraordinary attack last week, Sogavare accused the Albanese government of launching “an assault on our parliamentary democracy” by publicly offering to pay for the country’s elections. Sogavare said it was necessary to delay the elections, scheduled for next year, by seven months because it could not afford to conduct a poll while also hosting the Pacific Games.
To those who have observed Sogavare, a black belt karate expert, over his four separate stints as prime minister this was classic behaviour. One moment the devout Seventh-day Adventist can be warm and charming; the next, angry and obstreperous.
James Batley, a former Australian high commissioner to Solomon Islands, who met Sogavare often during his posting, says: “He is a very nationalistic and, indeed, at times prickly figure. Personally, he can come over as fairly intense … Other countries in the Pacific will be looking at the way Australia responds to these, frankly, somewhat childish provocations from Sogavare.”
University of Queensland emeritus professor Clive Moore, one of Australia’s foremost experts on Solomon Islands, describes Sogavare as “intelligent” and “energetic” but also “emotional”, “quite paranoid” and “self-serving”.
Sogavare, according to Moore, “has no problems with destroying the basic principles on which the nation is founded” if necessary to remain in power.
Despite Sogavare’s broadsides against Australia and disturbing signs of a drift away from democracy in the Solomons, Albanese will welcome his counterpart to Canberra for an official visit next month. The unstated but undeniable mission: to stop him moving any closer to Beijing.
Albanese this week also offered to fly Sogavare and other Pacific leaders to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on the government’s VIP jet. Sogavare declined, with the Solomon Islands governor-general taking up the offer instead.
Anthony Bergin, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says: “Sogavare is a master of playing us like a fiddle. He’s demonstrated he’s very skillful at manipulating other countries, including Australia.”
Sogavare is keeping other important nations off balance as well. In August, he offended US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman by skipping a scheduled appearance at a commemoration service for the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal campaign, a crucial Pacific battle in WWII. Soon after, Sogavare instituted a moratorium on foreign naval vessels docking in Solomon Islands, including US Navy ships. Australia was exempted from the temporary ban.
Batley, now a distinguished policy fellow at the Australian National University, says Sogavare is “occupying a fair bit of Canberra’s bandwidth” with his provocations and policy shifts. It’s a significant achievement given he leads a nation of just 750,000 people, around half the population of Adelaide. But the Solomons’ proximity to Australia, and its blossoming relationship with Beijing, makes Sogavare impossible to ignore.
“We have major national interests at stake in our relationship with the Solomon Islands,” Batley says.
Even though Sogavare insists he has no plans to allow a Chinese military base in his country, Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat posted in Honiara, says: “The current trend of Solomon’s relationship with China is one of the biggest concerns for Australia in the Pacific.”
Now a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, Sora says: “It’s very concerning because it is introducing China as a security actor in the Pacific. It draws the Pacific into that global geopolitical contest between the US and China in a way it had previously been shielded from.”
The current difficulties are just the latest chapter in Sogavare’s tumultuous relationship with Australia. Sogavare regularly spoke out against the Australian-led RAMSI peacekeeping mission, seeing it as an infringement on his nation’s sovereignty. In 2007, he expelled Australia’s high commissioner in Honiara, Patrick Cole, declaring him “persona non grata” and accusing him of meddling in local politics. Then-foreign minister Alexander Downer stood by Cole and described Sogavare’s behaviour as “eccentric”.
Former Solomon Islands politician Alfred Sasako has suggested there is a mystical element behind Sogavare’s apparent antagonism towards Australia. In 2007 Sasako claimed Sogavare told him several years earlier he had been visited by the spirit of a deceased prime minister who warned him that Australia couldn’t be trusted.
The Australian government is an important foreign aid contributor to Solomon Islands and is helping pay for next year’s Pacific Games. Canberra deployed troops and police officers to the country last November at Sogavare’s request when riots broke out in Honiara.
Nevertheless, Sogavare has bristled at Australian politicians describing his country as being in Australia’s “backyard”. The backyard, he told the Solomon Islands parliament earlier this year, is where “rubbish is collected and burned” and “where we relieve ourselves”.
The recent transformation in the Solomons’ relationship with China has been more dramatic and, to many, alarming. “In three years he has taken Solomon Islands from the most Taiwan-friendly nation in the Pacific to the most pro-China,” Bergin says.
Until 2019, Solomon Islands was one of the few nations in the world that diplomatically recognised Taiwan rather than Beijing – a result, critics said, of aggressive “chequebook diplomacy” from Taiwan. Then Sogavare’s government flipped and decided to recognise Beijing instead.
In a recent program, the ABC’s Four Corners alleged that Chinese-funded bribes to Solomon Islands politicians had been used to shore up Sogavare’s numbers in the parliament before a no-confidence vote last year.
“China is keeping this government together,” Ruth Liloqula, Transparency International’s Solomon Islands head, told the ABC. “We all assume that China is remotely controlling the government and Solomon Islands affairs.”
The Sogavare government angrily denied the report.
The Solomons’ shift towards China has coincided with troubling signs for media freedom and democracy. Last month the government took tighter control of the state-owned Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, a decision opponents say was aimed at censoring the news.
Then there was the delay in the scheduled four-yearly elections, a move approved by the Solomon Islands parliament last week. In the lead-up to the vote, Wong appeared on ABC Radio and spoke about the government’s offer to help pay for the elections, prompting a furious response from Sogavare.
Some foreign policy observers believed it was Wong’s first notable mistake since Labor formed government in May. “There was a not lot of value in making that offer public,” a former senior diplomat says, describing it as a “smart alec” move given Sogavare was determined to delay the poll and had the numbers in parliament to do so.
Penny Wong may have made her first wrong move as foreign affairs minister in revealing the Australian offer to fund Solomon Islands elections.
In an unusually strident criticism of Wong, opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the government was right to offer financial assistance but “the execution of that offer appears to have been woefully undertaken”.
Bergin, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says he wishes the Albanese government would take a tougher line on Sogavare. Australia, he argues, should have made funding for the Pacific Games conditional on its elections being held as scheduled. “I’m buggered if I know why we’re hosting him in Canberra,” he adds.
Batley disagrees, saying: “There’s really no point in Australia trying to punish or chastise someone like Sogavare. If we come down too heavily on him, there is a risk of it backfiring.”
While the Solomons leader may cause headaches in Canberra, he will be in power until at least 2024 and can’t be wished away.
“Other countries in the Pacific, frankly, are worried about the embrace between the Sogavare government and the Chinese,” Batley says. “So this is a relationship that has got to be managed for the long term.”.