Government and governance, International relations, National security | The Pacific

24 May 2022

While it has been relatively successful in supporting the development of traditional law enforcement in Solomon Islands, the Australian Government needs to pay greater attention to aiding economic development, Charles Hawksley writes.

It’s rare that foreign policy – particularly related to the Pacific – affects elections in Australia, but in 2022, Solomon Islands took centre stage. Both major parties argued over whether Australia has lost influence in the country, as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare prepares to host a high level Chinese delegation to sign a China-Solomon Islands security agreement sometime in the coming weeks.

This turn of events might make it look to some observers as if the last two decades of engagement with Solomon Islands has been a waste of time and money for Australia. In that time, the Australian Government spent $3 billion funding of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003-2017, supported ongoing policing missions of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), and committed $155 million in development aid in 2020-21 alone.

In arguing that more can be done to re-establish Australian influence in Solomon Islands, a few points are worth making about the nature of Australia’s police-building effort there through RAMSI, as well as how effective law enforcement and economic development are linked.

More on this: Long live RAMSI?

Effective policing support is widely recognised as important to long-term stability and development. Since the 1990s, United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations have frequently focused on policing as a central component. As the emphasis in complex peace operations switches to the primacy of the rule of law, it is police rather than troops that are needed.

RAMSI was a substantial investment in regional stability by Australia, but it was never going to be a cure-all for economic development challenges that pre-date independence in 1978. Another under-appreciated aspect of RAMSI is that it also interfered in government mechanisms and upset Solomon Islands elites, Sogovare in particular – he argued RAMSI interfered too much.

RAMSI had different phases and objectives and changing mandates, including a focus on support for campaigns against gender based-violence and reformation of the RSIPF. This is all the stuff of ‘police-building’, a suite of activities that support state and civil society strengthening, as well as trust in state institutions and democracy.

Reforming the RSIPF involved a number of activities, including cracking down on corruption, logistical and operational support, advice on training and curricula for new police recruits, command and control, and eventually constructing actual police buildings. As a result of all this, by 2013, $2.2 billion had been spent in the law and justice sector alone.

Yet while Australia favoured a muscular approach to social issues in Solomons, arguably the problem was one of under-development. Whilst comparatively peaceful today, there remain few employment opportunities available for new generations of educated Solomon Islanders.

More on this: Pacific Step-up or business as usual?

State-building is a messy business, and it’s never clear if anything will work until you leave. Democratic governments tend to do what they want, and foreign policy changes are to be expected.

In Solomon Islands there have been several setbacks, including riots in Honiara’s Chinatown in 2006, and 2021, yet the policing progress is real. The RSIPF were progressively re-armed from 2015, and have had control over all national security, including elections, since 2016, all without major abuses of power.

Additionally, the recent China-Solomon Islands announcement should not distract from the major successes Australia has had there. It worth remembering that the Solomon Islands Government also has a bilateral policing security arrangement with Australia that dates from 2018.

Whilst Australia is upset that this has now been joined by two agreements with China, Pacific nations having multiple security partners is hardly unprecedented — in Timor-Leste, Australia is one of several states that provide both policing support and aid.

Australia seems to be bristling at Solomon Islands’ choice of another development partner, without considering how the Solomon Islands’ calculus has changed over the past decade. China has bought more Solomon Islands exports than any other state since 2007. In 2020, China bought 64.4 per cent (US$316 million), whereas Australia bought just 1.05 per cent (US$5.14 million).

According to the Lowy Institute in 2017, China pledged US$5billion to the Pacific, far greater than Australia’s then $US1 billion aid spend. Whilst little of this has been spent so far, it must be tempting to imagine what even a portion of that could do for Solomon Islands. That money could go a long way to supporting more infrastructure, more tourism, more roads, more jobs, and more growth.

If Australia wants to re-establish its prime position in Solomon Islands, and the Pacific more generally, growing the trade relationship would be helpful. Australia could also do more in aid generally, as it has been declining as a percentage of gross national income for a decade.

The new Labor Government should review how it approaches the region, and view Pacific development as a national security issue for Australia.

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