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Solomon Islands, Divided by its Government's Closer Ties with Beijing

According to a 2022 opinion poll, only 23% of Solomon Islands residents view China's aid favorably, whereas some 77% perceive it negatively.



A stadium is being constructed with Chinese financial aid in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. There is a sign at the entrance that says "Support China." (© Sankei by Hiroshi Mori)

Honiara, Solomon Islands. Known as a fierce battlefield in World War II, the Solomon Islands now symbolize growing Chinese influence in the Pacific. In September 2019, the South Pacific island country severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and instead established ties with Beijing. This raised fears that it could turn into a military foothold for China

Upon visiting the country, this reporter found expectations for development with China's economic assistance. However, there were also strong concerns that closer relations with China have "divided the country."

The highway linking Honiara International Airport to the city center of Honiara, the capital, is paved but very bumpy. It is located on Guadalcanal, the largest island in the country. 

After getting in the car we rock violently down the road. Meanwhile, the construction site of a modern stadium appears just on the outskirts of the city. It is the venue for the 2023 Pacific Games, a competition for Oceania countries scheduled for November 19-December 2. Financing for the structure is from Chinese grant aid. With no high-rise buildings around, the stadium's presence stands out. 

Dreams of Glory in a Barren Landscape

"It would be great if this modern stadium is completed and a new Neymar (a celebrated Brazilian soccer player) is born in the Solomons," says William Douglas. He lives near the stadium and has high hopes for the promotion of sports in the country. 

At the same time, he wonders, "How will they manage the stadium in the future?" Is it possible to sustainably operate the stadium In a poor country like the Solomons, where some 23% of the population lives on less than $1.9 USD a day? 

"That concern is right," says Peter Kenilorea Jr, the opposition leader in the National Parliament. He criticizes Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for his decision to build the stadium with China's money. "There is no plan (for the stadium's management). China's gift of friendship will become the country's burden," he adds. 

Buildings were set on fire in Chinatown in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara during the 2021 riots. Writing on the wall says "China Down," among other criticisms. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Mori.)

Chinese are 'Dividing our Country'

After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1978, the Solomon Islands received enthusiastic support from Taiwan. Diplomatic ties between the two were established in 1983. Thereafter, numerous facilities were built with Taiwan's economic assistance, including the National Referral Hospital in Honiara. 

However, in 2019, the Sogavare administration severed the country's relations with Taiwan for new diplomatic ties with China. At the time, the reason given for the change was "reviewing external relations based on national interests." For China, this was a successful example of leveraging its economic assistance to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.

Kenilorea Jr resents the fact that the reasons for the Sogavare administration's abrupt turnabout are so vague. One reason is concern about the "debt trap" developing countries fall into when they cannot repay China's excessive loans. But the more serious problem, he says, is that the "switch of diplomatic recognition has divided the country." 


Protesters Demand Sogavare Resignation

Riots in November 2021 are one outcome of the divisions caused by the diplomatic switch. Supporters of the opposition party, together with predominantly pro-Taiwan locals from Malaita Island, protested the Sogavare government's decision to break off its ties with Taiwan. 

They further demanded Sogavare's resignation. People's antipathy against Beijing grew because of China's support of the Sogavare government. There were arson attacks on Chinatown buildings in Honiara, and at least three citizens died in the tumult. 

Scars of the riots still remain in Chinatown. A woman named Georgina, who lives nearby said that she did not join the protesters. But, she added, she "could understand the feelings" of those rioting. Since around the 1970s, the number of ethnic Chinese has been increasing and local resentment has been smoldering. 

Many problems are related to the difficulties experienced by local retail businesses. The diplomatic switch to China might have ignited such resentments," Georgina surmises.

A monument thanking Taiwan for its assistance at the National Hospital in Honiara was destroyed in May. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Mori)

Interisland Rivalries

Traditionally there have been tensions between the people of Guadalcanal and Malaita. Daniel Suidani, former premier of Malaita Province, explains that the central government's diplomatic shift alarmed Malaita residents. 

Malaita has a lot of infrastructure built with Taiwanese assistance, he says. The central government's diplomatic shift has further deepened "the longstanding antagonism" between it and the historically pro-Taiwan province, he adds. 

Support for China has not yet penetrated the Solomon Islands population. According to a 2022 opinion poll, only 23% of residents viewed China's aid favorably, whereas some 77% responded negatively. "There are deep, friendly feelings for Taiwan nationwide," says Suidani. "Nevertheless, Sogavare chose China," he adds emphatically. 

In May 2023, a monument to Taiwan's assistance was suddenly removed from the National Referral Hospital grounds. Opposition politicians criticized the government, saying that it was done on Chinese instructions. Nevertheless, the true reason for the monument's removal is unknown. 

A woman who regularly uses the hospital says, however, that she has "an emotional attachment to this hospital built by Taiwan. I am very upset that the monument has been destroyed." 

Opposition lawmaker Peter Kenirolea points to the Taiwanese flag at the parliamentary building in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The Diet Members' Office Building was built with the assistance of Taiwan (© Sankei by Hiroshi Mori)

'Geopolitics Makes the Country Rich' 

Even strong domestic opposition has not stopped the Sogavare administration's move for closer ties with China. It recently approved the construction of some 160 radio towers by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. And it also signed a 100-million-dollar port improvement contract in March with a Chinese company. 

Guadalcanal Premier Francis Sade, who is close to the ruling party, welcomes China's increasing presence in the country. "Infrastructure improvement is desirable for this country, which has been kept poor since its independence," he says. He further praises China's fast decision making and dismisses the warnings about China's growing influence as "only what some media say." 

The Solomon Islands is a strategically important point along the sea route linking the United States and Australia. Alarmed by the country's ever closer ties with China, the US stepped up its engagement and reopened its embassy in February. Grinning, Sade said, 


"The value of our country has grown since the diplomatic switch to China," he says. "As a result, journalists like you are now coming to our country." He also expresses hope for assistance from the US and Japan, saying, "Geopolitics makes the country develop."

About the Solomon Islands

Located east of New Guinea, Solomon Islands is made up of nearly 1,000 islands and atolls. The country, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1978, has a population of approximately 720,000. Forestry and fishery are its main industries, and nearly 70% of its exports are bound for China. 

Economic development in the Solomon Islands lags behind other South Pacific island nations. And the country is classified as one of the "least developed countries" by the United Nations. The incumbent prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, is serving his fourth term since 2000. 


(Read the report in Japanese.)

By Hiroshi Mori, Reporting from Honiara

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