As Solomon Islands’ election looms, China’s influence on the Pacific country draws scrutiny

China’s influence in the Pacific is being scrutinised as ally Solomon Islands prepares to hold elections this month, with two candidates indicating they would seek to review a controversial security pact between the two countries.

Ties between China and Solomon Islands have deepened under prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, who is hoping to secure another term in the vote on 17 April. Solomon Islands, one of the poorest countries in the Pacific, relies heavily on partners including Australia and China for development aid and support. Beijing’s assistance ranges from infrastructure development, medical, policing and security support.

In 2019, Solomon Islands severed ties with Taiwan to recognise China and three years later signed a security pact with Beijing. The move raised concerns in the west over China’s ambitions in the Pacific region.

Two other candidates considering the prime minister role – Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of the United party (UP), and Gordon Darcy Lilo, who leads Solomon Islands Party for Rural Advancement (Sipra) and is a former prime minister – say they would reassess the deal.

“Solomon Islands has become entwined in the increasing geopolitical competition between China and the US and its allies,” says associate professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka at the University of Hawaii.

“These global powers have a vested interest in the outcome of this election.”

Look North strategy

Solomon Islands, with a population of about 700,000, faces a slew of pressing domestic issues including weakening health and education systems, and poor infrastructure development. Like countries around the world, cost-of-living pressures are a feature of this election – along with the government’s capacity to help through development partners.

Sogavare’s Look North strategy has been a central theme of his campaign. He adopted the policy in 2008, aiming to strengthen diplomatic and economic relations with Asian countries for development purposes. The security pact with China is part of the strategy.

Sogavare is running as part of the OUR party coalition which is committed to the Look North policy, as well as prioritising defence, security and trade. It has emphasised strengthening ties with China while continuing relations with traditional partners such as Australia.

The Pacific Games, which Solomon Islands hosted in 2023, highlighted Beijing’s support for the nation. China funded much of the Games and built facilities – notably a national stadium in Honiara.

At the launch of the OUR party campaign this year, Sogavare said establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 2019 was “pivotal” for the country. He said China’s support with the Pacific Games and other infrastructure development “help place our country on a more favourable path, a right footing domestically and internationally.”

Honiara, Solomon Islands. The country faces a slew of pressing domestic issues including weakening health and education systems, and poor infrastructure development. Photograph: Zahiyd Namo/The Guardian

‘We are not in war with anyone’

Four candidates will challenge Sogavare for his parliamentary seat. In Solomon Islands there is no direct voting for the prime minister. Voters cast their ballot for MPs and, as the results come in, candidates will attempt to form a ruling coalition. MPs will later hold a vote to appoint a prime minister.

Mathew Wale for the Coalition for Accountability Reform and Empowerment (Care) joins UP’s Kenilorea Jr and Sipra’s Lilo in potentially seeking the top job.

Kenilorea Jr says while he supports the economic development aspects of the Look North policy, he holds concerns about the security pact.

“Security issues need to be less ambiguous and much more clear,” he tells the Guardian.

As the detail of the China security deal has never been made public, Kenilorea Jr says UP will reveal the terms of the agreement. Kenilorea Jr tells the Guardian he will review the security pact, and seek to have ties with Taiwan and Beijing.

“We need both of them as development partners,” he says.

Kenilorea Jr also says he will engage more with traditional partners, including Australia. The country needs genuine partnership that rids it of the notion “You tap my back, I’ll tap yours”, Kenilorea Jr says.

Care, while supporting the Look North strategy, says it will maintain relationships with traditional partners including Australia.

Sipra’s platform focuses on domestic and foreign policy reforms, tackling corruption and maintaining support for traditional partners.

“We already have our existing regional security partners like Australia and New Zealand. We need to harness this agreement and make good use of it. We are not in war with anyone. All we need is our economic security,” Lilo says.

map of solomon islands

Both Wale and Lilo call for more transparency regarding the China security pact.

“Solomon Islands needs to know the detailed contents of this agreement. We will do away with it or reassess it once we seize power in the coming election,” Lilo says.

Amid the focus on China, many in Solomon Islands have called for government to prioritise rural development, healthcare, education and other urgent needs.

“We should put aside geopolitics and first respond to the pressing development needs and struggles our rural people have experienced over decades,” the former vice-chancellor of Solomon Islands National University Dr Jack Maebuta says.

Head of Transparency Solomon Islands, Ruth Liloqula, echoes those concerns, criticising parties for campaigning “mainly based on foreign policies.”

“Look at rural areas first, rather than Look North or wherever you may wish to look, but remember our rural people are suffering every day,” Liloqula says.

Sogavare met with China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing in 2023. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Predicting the outcome of elections in Solomon Islands is difficult but some observers say Sogavare is likely to retain the top job.

“Kenilorea or Lilo … will only get the power if they form a coalition party to have numbers. Otherwise OUR party is still leading,” Liloqula says.

Dr Alice Pollard, founder of the West Areare Rokotanikeni Women’s Association, says Sogavare’s return to power is “uncertain” but he has support.

“He wields considerable influence and enjoys backing from various quarters,” she says.


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