29 May 2019
On Sunday, Scott Morrison will make his first overseas trip since the election – to the Solomon Islands, a nation of 600,000 people that has not been visited by an Australian prime minister since Kevin Rudd went there in early 2008. Back then, Rudd was seeking to fulfil a campaign promise to rekindle regional ties, after attacking John Howard for damaging relations with Australia’s neighbours. But Morrison’s trip is different. He is not pursuing domestic political interests and, unlike Rudd, has no personal background in Australian foreign affairs. Instead, despite his claims otherwise, he is heading to Honiara because the government is deeply concerned about the looming prospect of this sprawling island nation – still scattered with airfields and ports from World War II – aligning with China.
Last month, Manasseh Sogavare, the newly elected prime minister of the Solomon Islands, revealed that he would consider switching the country’s diplomatic stance from recognition of Taiwan to China. The sovereign state archipelago has had diplomatic ties with Taiwan since 1983, and receives considerable aid and investment as part of this relationship. But these ties, Sogavare told the nation’s public broadcaster, were “not hard and fast and fixed”. In 2014, during a previous term as prime minister, Sogavare hinted at switching allegiances – and it is possible he is suggesting so again now to try to increase Taiwan’s generosity.
But Morrison is not taking any chances.
China has gradually been convincing countries to end their association with Taiwan, which now has less than twenty global allies, including six in the Pacific. The biggest of these is the Solomon Islands, which has growing ties with Beijing. The island nation is also believed to be the first of Australia’s Pacific neighbours that has China as its largest trading partner. According to the World Bank, its trade with China was worth $US398 million in 2017, about four times the value of that with Australia. In 2016, the Solomon Islands signed a deal with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to lay an undersea cable to Australia and Papua New Guinea. This raised security concerns in Canberra, prompting Malcolm Turnbull to take over the project. Last August, in one of his last acts as prime minister, Turnbull hosted Sogavare in Canberra and they signed a new security deal.
Morrison has continued this so-called Pacific “step-up”. Despite a looming election, he visited Fiji and Vanuatu in January, becoming the first Australian prime minister to do so outside international summits. This followed concerns about China’s growing influence across the Pacific, although Morrison insists that the renewed focus on the region – including additional aid – is not a response to China’s growing influence, but simply about improving bonds with Australia’s “Pacific family”.
Last week, a senior US State Department official, Patrick Murphy, visited Canberra and warned of China’s efforts to persuade Pacific states to switch their allegiance from Taiwan. The prospect of a Chinese base in the South Pacific, Murphy cautioned on Friday, was “quite troubling”. Three days later, Morrison announced that he was heading to Honiara.
So far, the newly returned prime minister’s attempt to reach out to Pacific states has been well-received. His challenge now is to tailor new projects – health care support, Australian entry visas, combating climate change, for example – to their needs, rather than aiming primarily to counter Chinese influence. In the coming years, Australia will not be able to match Chinese aid or trade volumes. To maintain close ties with its island neighbours, it will need to adopt a different diplomatic approach and treat these states as genuine partners. Sogavare has made three visits to Australia in the past three years. Morrison’s visit is long overdue, if not too late.