Edward Acton Cavanough
After 36 years of recognising Taiwanese sovereignty, the Solomon Islands’ switch to China was so rapid Taiwanese diplomats barely had time to lower their flag. In Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch, Edward Acton Cavanough follows this change, from its causes to its aftermath. Cavanough notes it was inevitable that the Solomons would recognise their largest trading partner – Australia itself joined that fold in 1971. Yet this switch has had global implications, not least in Australia. The 2022 China–Solomons security pact, for example, delivered Labor a critical edge during last year’s federal election.
After the switch, small but significant Taiwanese aid projects, such as the Adaliua farm developed to improve Solomon Islanders’ poor diets, were left fallow. Yet their memories remain, contrasting with Chinese actions such as convincing an affable provincial governor to lease the entire island of Tulagi to Communist Party of China interests or paying chiefs to permit exploitative mining.
Australian aid to the Solomons runs to $160 million a year, but it is concentrated in the capital, Honiara. So while Chinese influence creates anxieties about debt-diplomacy, authoritarianism and religious intolerance, the promise of investment and development in regional areas, even if poorly compensated, appeals to many.
Divided Isles blends the author’s in-country investigations with impressive access to key personalities who give some shade to the white space often found in Western narratives. It unpacks the clash, in the most populous province of Malaita, between the tenuously bound coalition Malaita for Democracy (M4D) and the block of powerful pro-Chinese MPs in Honiara. This erupted into violence in 2021, when M4D orchestrated riots in Honiara that claimed three lives, proving more is at stake than international relations.
Cavanough follows a cause from the personal through to its global effect. When Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare narrowly escaped rioters besieging the parliament building, it was the threat to his personal safety that was instrumental in his signing the China–Solomons security pact. That the details of this pact, which may include a Chinese military presence, remain secret has added to international angst in the region.
Sogavare is an enigmatic figure. His media blockade and departure from democratic principles mark growing shadows around his prime ministership. Internationally, he is adept at navigating Western anxieties regarding China and plays on Australia’s history of climate inaction while using the fear of appearing neo-colonial to check Australian overreach.
Divided Isles is well balanced and multifaceted, providing an urgently needed counterbalance to the hawkish or complacent commentaries that skirt or reduce domestic complexities.
La Trobe University Press, 304pp, $34.99
La Trobe University Press is a Schwartz imprint
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Divided Isles".
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