Like the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano that triggered a massive tsunami and sent shockwaves around the world when it erupted on January 15, the recently signed security deal between the Solomon Islands and China has also unleashed geopolitical convulsions of immense magnitude.
The source of the incredible volcanic eruption that was VisibleSpace came from far below the surface. Similarly, the controversial security deal, and Australia’s alarmed response to it, also goes deep into history.
Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, has repeatedly described China’s deal as an assertion of sovereignty sovereignty. (CriticsThey claim the contrary. China Additional to this discourse by accusing the Australian government of “disrespectful colonialism” in its unsuccessful attempts to dissuade Sogavare’s government from formalising the deal.
Yet Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended Australia’s response, claiming his government did not want to repeat the “long history” of telling Pacific nations what to do. Morrison added,
I’m not going to act like former administrations that treated the Pacific like some extension of Australia.
Morrison is absolutely right about one thing – there is a long history shaping the recent deal. But was the Solomons viewed as an extension to Australia? Was Australia able to exercise colonial control over the nation? Most importantly, how can Australia rectify past mistakes and move forward with the new regional reality.
The sugar plantations of the 19th century
From 1893, Britain colonized the Solomon Islands. Contrary to British New Guinea, which Britain transferred colonial control over, the Solomon Islands were not under British New Guinea. AustraliaAfter Federation in 1901, the Solomons were under British control until 1978 when they gained independence.
Australians felt a sense of comfort in the fact that Britain had taken control of the Solomons at 19th century’s end. At the time, Australia was deeply “concerned” about “Great Powers […] now established in the South Seas within a few days’ steaming distance from Eastern Australia, especially Queensland”, wrote Brisbane’s Courier Mail.
It went on:
It is a terrible thing […]The colonial statesmen of the past did not have the foresight to recognize the strategic and productive importance of these South Seas territories.
And in words that sound remarkably like those being articulated now, the article predicted “we will have to spend millions […] because of the nearness of bases of possible hostile operations”.
The “Great Powers” in question in 1898 were France, which was attempting to control all the islands south of the Solomons (present-day Vanuatu and New Caledonia) and Germany, which had claimed the arc of islands from the northern Solomon Islands into New Guinea (excluding British New Guinea in the southeast).
Australian politicians aspired to Britain governing all South Pacific Islands on their behalf starting in 1870s. This was articulated by Australia’s Monroe DoctrineIt held that Australia, backed solely by Britain, ruled in its region. France and Germany questioned it in the 19th Century, but the notion persisted along security concerns.
While Australia did not colonize the Solomons, it did exercise colonial power there in other ways. The most devastating and egregious was labour recruiting, which began on the islands in 1870.
It is estimated that 19,000 Solomon Islanders worked on Queensland sugar plantations prior to most of them. RepatriatedIn 1902. In 1902. white peopleThese killings were then avenged with both official and unofficial Punitive Expeditions.
During and after World War II
A small number of traders and planters from Australia established businesses on the islands. Missionaries came too. The Battle for the Solomons, which lasted from August 1942 to December 1943 saw the invasion of Solomon Islanders’ homes by colossal forces.
Some AustraliansAlthough many Americans participated in this dramatic episode, it was primarily US forces fighting to stop the Japanese advance on Australia. The importance of these islands to Australia’s security was horrifically demonstrated.
After the war, decolonisation was happening at a rapid rate. Australian politicians began to think about how this wave independence would affect the islands, and how Australia might shape it to ensure its security.
The idea of a “Melanesian Federation” was suggested. This would bind Dutch New Guinea (which became part of Indonesia in 1969), Papua New Guinea and “The British Solomons”. However, this idea relied on new nations buying into it. They didn’t.
Another idea was incorporating New Guinea, and possibly the Solomons too, as a “seventh state” of Australia. John Kerr, the future Australian governor general, clearly articulated in 1958 what was at the heart of this security guarantee. Australia would have deal with “racial problems” that “we would have to solve on the basis of equality and genuine acceptance of New Guinea people in Australia”.
These ideas were not realized and many Pacific countries have remained closed to economic opportunities that would have dramatically improved lives and permanently bound Australia to Pacific countries through transnational communities.
Economics is the key
The root causes of the Solomon Islands’ problems since independence can be found in economics. Australia may have played an important role in peacekeeping during the 2003-17 period. RAMSI MissionHowever, it didn’t take bold action to address economic issues.
Nearly 13% of Solomon Islanders are asian Living below the poverty levelOnly 70% of the population has electricity access. China appears to be offering an economic panacea unlike Australia.
Australia must abandon its long-standing aversion towards Melanesian immigration. Pacific Islanders are being kept out of Australia by racial and economic exclusion. Communities have come via “the New Zealand pathway”, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and established themselves in Australia. They have established a vital remittance industry that has been even more important in the face of COVID and the collapse of island economies.
Very few Australians live here originate from the strategic islands that arc around Australia’s north. These people may come to Australia temporarily through educational programs or other temporary means. Pacific Labour SchemeThis allows you to work in agriculture, meat production, trades, cooking, hospitality, and care.
Recently, this scheme has suffered terrible publicity with many workers claiming they were subjected to “Slave-like conditions”, bringing to mind the Queensland plantation labour history.
The geopolitical situation is now extremely unstable. Australian politicians are thinking again about the islands and what major changes are required to the way things are done. In March 2022, a parliamentary committee suggested ideas for compacts of free association similar to the ones the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Federated States of Micronesia have made with the United States. It also suggested that Pacific-friendly migration policies be developed, like the one of New Zealand. In the next few years, all the pressures on Pacific islands will be magnified by climate change.
Australia must take bold steps in order to strengthen its Pacific relationships and safeguard its strategic interests. Taking the humanitarian approach and integrating with the Pacific islands is not only right – it is also the best way to support Australia’s interests and shed its colonial legacies.