Among the many geopolitical issues that were transformed or exacerbated in different parts of the world by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing uncertainty, the current events in the South Pacific merits mention. Crises of multiple dimensions have been brewing in the South Pacific, especially in the Solomon Islands (SI), for a few decades now, posing a spill over effect on the traditional security providers of the region like New Zealand and Australia. The recent security deal between the SI and China, which necessarily “outsources” domestic security, presents an opportunity to examine the issues underlying the security apparatus of the island nation.
Strategically located in the northeast of Australia, SI became an independent nation from British rule in 1978. Although an important theatre of war during World War 2, much of its geostrategic importance was forgotten during the Cold War. Before China ever set foot in the South Pacific, the US, Australia and New Zealand were the main traditional security providers and aid donors of the region. Now, speculations are rife that the new security deal with China is a step in the direction of a Chinese military base in the region, possibly resulting in a choke point effect on the US’ and Australian influence and flow of force in the South Pacific. But how this small island nation of hardly seven lakh people became the linchpin of China’s diplomacy quest to the South Pacific must be understood with a historical lens.
Breakdown of state and entry of RAMSI
The post-independence era was mired with several traditional and non-traditional security challenges ranging from economic inequality, inter-island/ethnic conflict to governance issues. Regional disparity in development along ethnic lines coupled with limited employment opportunities crystallised as a major driver for migration to the urban centres like Honiara for improved economic opportunities. In future, the disproportionate concentration of development in Honiara and underlying ethnic cleavages would have a cataclysmic effect on the state. Additionally, intergenerational conflict over resource distribution, disruption of patronage system by declining demand for timber exports linked to the Asia financial crisis, associated weakness of the postcolonial state, and a large majority of underemployed and frustrated young men added to the issues SI had to tackle during this period. In the 1990s, over a decade after the independence of SI, large-scale migration and settling of rural Malaitans in Honiara catalysed into ethnic riots and potential collapse of the state.
To quell the civil unrest and breakdown of law and order in the country even after meditations by Australia and New Zealand, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) or Operation Helpem Fren was launched in 2003 with the support of Pacific Island Forum. As one of the main security providers of the region and given the predicament of an “arc of instability” in its neighbourhood, Australia took the lead in RAMSI’s 14-year peacekeeping and state building mandates of the mission.
From its onset, RAMSI emphasised policing with a light military footprint, and focused its resources on assisting in institution building and restoring stability in the country. Australia’s experience in integrating security and development agencies, previously in East Timor and Bougainville was pivotal for the initial success in Guadalcanal. Australian security personnel, diplomats and advisors were deployed with contributions from the other Pacific Island Forum members making it a success story of regional cooperation. RAMSI was structured in such a way that the objectives, mandates, transition and exit strategies were categorically laid out from the beginning. The mission had taken cognizance of underlying economic issues and worked out a civilian development program to strengthen the justice system, financial infrastructure and governance, security apparatuses, government machinery and public services like health and education. However, in 2006, allegations of a rigged election and consequent rioting under the tenure of RAMSI, was a harbinger of deeper fractures and evolving demands of the state. Given that the current Prime Minister Sogavare, at the time had emerged as a staunch opponent of RAMSI and Australia’s involvement perhaps foreshadowed the direction of SI after RAMSI’s departure.
Despite the development agenda of RAMSI, governance issues persisted which were augmented by lack of involvement of the locals. Weak political parties, highly unstable parliamentary coalitions, and culture of political corruption, elitism, nepotism, and cronyism, which traditionally characterises SI’s political system, were kept outside the scope of RAMSI. Lack of engagement with the traditional justice system, poor resourcing of the legal sector and failure to recruit and retain qualified legal staff, and outsourcing daily legal work to international staff created an unbridgeable gap between the RAMSI and the islanders.
On the economic front, the RAMSI could not find sustainable solutions to high delivery costs owing to the small, but dispersed population, rising infrastructure and service provision costs, underdeveloped human capital and employment opportunities, fractured internal markets and vulnerability to natural disasters like cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. Failure of the judicial system to effectively arbitrate traditional land disputes dissuaded foreign investments. Although post-2003 GDP rates started picking up, the economy was propped up on revenues from unsustainable logging and forestry practices, and international aid.
Although RAMSI as a plan and structure was thought to be failproof, the pitfalls can be traced back to its execution. 83 percent ($2.2 billion) of RAMSI’s total expenditure was devoted to maintenance of law and justice, whereas the rest was divided between programs for economic governance, and cross-mission activities. Interestingly, only a miniscule $103 million was allocated for improving the machinery of government which had negative implications on long term stability and prosperity of the island nation. Because a top down approach to state building and peacekeeping in SI had obvious shortcomings, it is undeniable that a major flaw in the plan was the non-involvement of locals in the idea of state building. Therefore, perhaps prophetically, strong suspicions about maintaining the gains under RAMSI even after their departure in 2017 turned into cause for alarm.
Other than the legacy issues associated with RAMSI, two things that happened in the region post-RAMSI steered course of the present day geopolitics of the South Pacific: one, the consistent cutting down of development aid by the primary regional donor Australia, and China’s leveraging this situation, and two, the COVID-19 pandemic which triggered an socio-economic crisis in the country. The corollary events demand an analysis of preconditions of interference/involvement of regional and extra regional powers, or rather the appropriateness of “outsourcing security” in the South Pacific. With the rising influence of China in the South Pacific, it also merits examination if outsourcing security to China would put strategic autonomy and national interests of Pacific Island nations at stake, and what it would mean for the major powers like the US, Australia, and Japan.
Image Source: The Guardian
Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.