US and Chinese interests are at stake in violent Honiara politicking: NZ waits to be asked for help before becoming involved

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Violence in Honiara – three days of looting and destruction, demands for the PM to step down  and the declaration of a nightly curfew – has prompted one of two new posts on the Beehive website since we last updated our monitoring.

Reporting on the unrest, RNZ Pacific correspondent in Honiara, Georgina Kekea, said only six buildings were still standing in Honiara’s Chinatown.

In Wellington, Acting Foreign Affairs Minister David Parker has expressed this country’s deep concern at events unfolding in  the capital of the Solomon Islands.

“New Zealand is a long-standing partner of Solomon Islands, and there are deep and enduring connections between our two countries,” Acting Foreign Affairs Minister David Parker said.

Parker informed us that this country’s engagement in Solomon Islands

“… is guided by the principle of tātou tātou, or all of us acting together for the common good. We stand with the Government and people of Solomon Islands through this difficult time.”

Had we been asked what principle guides our engagement with that country (we confess), we would have struggled to come up with the right answer. Our readers, we are sure, did not need to be told.

Parker proceeded to say:

“New Zealand welcomes the generosity shown by our close friends Australia in deploying Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force with such urgency. They have responded to a direct request from the Solomon Islands Government which takes place under the Australian-Solomon Islands bilateral security treaty, and we are confident their actions will help calm the situation,” David Parker said.

And what is this country doing?

Not much, immediately, because no help has been sought and we need to be given a steer by countries which Parker did not name.

Parker says:

New Zealand will remain in close contact with our Solomon Islands counterparts and international partners. No requests for assistance from the Solomon Islands Government have been received at this point.

On the other hand, it seems our Police are involved.

“We have long-standing partnerships with Solomon Islands, including through the New Zealand Police, who are currently providing advice and support to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force on the ground,” David Parker said.

The New Zealand High Commission in Honiara is providing SafeTravel advice to New Zealanders in Solomon Islands. New Zealanders should follow the advice of local authorities, exercise care and remain where they are if it is safe to do so.

So what’s going on in the Solomons?

RNZ reported today that the Governor General of Solomon Islands, Sir David Vunagi, has declared a nightly curfew in the troubled capital –  from 7pm to 6am – until it is revoked.

Rioting stemmed from a protest on Wednesday calling for the prime minister Manasseh Sogavare to stand down.

Tension is high in front of Sogavare’s residence where more than a hundred protesters have been throwing rocks while police with riot shields fire tear gas.

Australia’s Federal police officers are also visible in front of the Prime Minister’s residence.

RNZ Pacific correspondent Elizabeth Osifelo reported earlier that there are checkpoints set up around the city where the eastern part has been in flames.

“There’s a lot of tension still and especially a few metres around the prime minister’s residence. There’s a group of protesters and people around there.

“The police are still trying to push people back and there’s been tear gas fired,” she said.

The opposition leader, Matthew Wale, is calling for the prime minister to stand down.

He categorically denies accusations that he has played a part in inciting the unrest, and is calling for MPs in the government to leave Sogavare’s coalition

“MPs should listen to what the people are saying and not allow more destruction. The violence, of course I don’t condone it. But at the same time, leaders have decisions to make,” he said.

Sogavare links the violence to the  central government’s 2019 decision to switch diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.

This is echoed in a report in the New York Times which looks into who and what are behind the protests.

Many of the protesters had traveled from the island of Malaita to Guadalcanal Island, which houses the nation’s capital, according to officials and local news reports.

Experts say discontent has simmered for decades between the two islands, mainly over a perceived unequal distribution of resources and a lack of economic support that has left Malaita one of the least-developed provinces in the island nation.

There has also been lingering dissatisfaction in Malaita over the central government’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic allegiances to Beijing from Taipei, Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its territory.

 That decision dealt a blow both to Taipei’s global standing and to Washington’s regional diplomacy.

The United States sees the Solomon Islands, and other Pacific nations, as crucial in preventing China from asserting influence in the region.

China has been investing heavily in the Pacific, to the alarm of U.S. officials. In 2019, a Chinese company signed an agreement to lease one of the islands, but the agreement was subsequently ruled illegal by the attorney general of the Solomon Islands.

This is not the first time China’s presence on the islands has been a source of contention. In 2006, riots broke out amid rumors that the election of an unpopular prime minister had been influenced by Chinese or Taiwanese money.

The United States has been providing Malaita with direct foreign aid while China supports the central government.

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