China will “fill the gap” in Solomon Islands’ troubled budget, after Australia and other traditional development partners suddenly withdrew millions of dollars in promised funding, the country’s prime minister has claimed.
While the Albanese government immediately denied the claim, Manasseh Sogavare again condemned Australia and the U.S for criticising his country’s policing pact with China, saying while Australian and other Pacific police forces were its “partner of choice”, China was a welcomed additional security ally.
“It takes only nine hours’ flight from China to land forces here,” he said.
The Australian government said no development funding had been withdrawn. “Australia has delivered on our budget support commitments,” a spokesperson told the Guardian.
Sogavare, a four-time prime minister with an oft-troubled relationship with Australia, gave a rare – and excoriating – press conference at Honiara airport immediately upon his return from a week-long visit to China.
He said China had agreed to patch the Solomons’ ailing budget for this year and blamed the country’s traditional aid partners – citing Australia and New Zealand – for agreeing to cover the shortfall but then reneging.
“Some of our donor partners who have committed to providing budget support to us this year have since changed their position and delayed their assistance for us and we are struggling to finance the 2023 budget,” he said.
“This has left this country and people in a predicament. But I am glad to announce, and delighted to announce, the People’s Republic of China has really stepped up to provide this budget support needed for 2023.”
Sogavare said China was providing in health, agriculture and sport, in building infrastructure and in addressing climate change.
He said China might “very well be the answer to – not all – but most of our challenges”, but also that the Solomons needed to free itself from the “yoke” of foreign assistance.
“I will not allow our people to live in a perpetual state of dependency. We must break the yoke and shackles of dependency … It’s time to empower ourselves.”
Sogavare said the Solomons’ traditional allies and partners should not fear its growing relationship with China or with any other country.
“Solomon Islands has no enemies, only friends. Our struggle is to develop. We stretch out our hand of friendship and seek honest cooperation and partnership with all countries.”
In a statement, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said no development funding had been withdrawn:
“Australia has delivered on our budget support commitments to Solomon Islands this year.”
“This support has been provided across numerous sectors in Solomon Islands, including health, education and elections. We continue to discuss development and budget support needs with the Solomon Islands government,” a spokesperson said.
Last year, Australia provided about $40m (US$27 million) for budget support, including for health, education and Covid recovery. Australia has also committed $25m (US$17 million) in election support and $16.7m (US$11.3 million) for the Pacific Games.
Sogavare’s comments, first reported by the ABC, also reiterated criticism of Australia and U.S for their concerns over a policing pact between the Solomons and China.
“The narrow and coercive diplomatic approach of targeting China-Solomon Islands relations, and I want to use this word, is unneighbourly … This is nothing but interference of foreign states in the internal affairs of Solomon Islands,” he said.
“China has not invaded or colonised any other nation-state. Australia and the United States should not fear China’s police support.”
Australian police forces led the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) – known as Operation Helpem Fren – after longstanding civil tensions in the archipelago’s main islands erupted into violence in 2003. The Ramsi mission, which ran until 2017, was criticised by Sogavare, who argued it was dominated by Australia and subjugated Solomons’ sovereignty.
Australia also sent defence force personnel and federal police to Honiara in 2021 to quell anti-government riots.
However, Sogavare emphasised Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific nations would remain the “partner of choice” for Solomons’ security and said he would call those nations first for help if violence again broke out.
“We have a standing, a current arrangement with Siaf (Solomon Islands Assistance Forces) with Australia, New Zealand, PNG, Fiji, but now we’ll need to dialogue with them, as we are consistent that they are our partner of choice … We’ll need to call on them first,” he said.
But Sogavare said his country now had a “standing arrangement” with China as well and if there were delays in other forces arriving in the Solomons, “it takes only nine hours’ flight from China to land forces here”.
“Nothing is actually stopping me from that if there are some hiccups along the way.
“We can invoke our security arrangements. Nothing will stop this sovereign country,” he said.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS