The Heritage Hotel in Honiara is a battleground in the new Cold War against China. Last week from the cafe, I witnessed diplomats and ministers meeting. You could feel the tension.
The Chinese Ambassador had the biggest delegation. In the tropical heat, the Japanese Ambassador wore a perfectly pressed suit. Australian diplomats were claiming to be the Solomons’ best friend. Our High Commissioner, an old Solomons hand, looked the most at home.
The hotel was full of consultants.
Having lived in the Solomons, it is a country I know well. The change is dramatic.
After fighting battles for the Solomons in WWII, the Americans went home. America did not even have a consulate there. It is the Chinese signing a treaty of friendship that potentially allows them to build a military base that has brought the Americans back.
Solomon Islands used to be anti Communist China. Riots have twice burnt down Chinatown. The Government recognised Taiwan, and the Taiwanese were popular because they funded MPs’ constituency allowances. Each MP received Solomon $45,000 (about $8650) every month to spend as they saw fit on their electorate. Western countries are horrified by elected MPs spending money, rather than being guided by civil servants and aid agencies. There is no audit. Some MPs pocket the money, while others spend it on their constituency.
China got the Solomons to switch representation by continuing to visit during Covid. China not only offered to fund the MPs’ allowances, but also lift it to Solomon $75,000. In New Zealand dollars, that adds up to $8.7 million a year. Never was a country bought so cheaply.
The West was caught completely by surprise. The New Zealand Foreign Minister had never visited the Solomons. It should not have been a surprise. When our officials criticised the MPs’ allowances, my advice was, “if we really want influence, Australia and New Zealand should offer to pay the MP allowances provided the MPs must publish how the money is spent”. Now we are spending far more on aid projects in return for little influence. Having let superpower rivalry into the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand are proposing to spend billions of extra dollars on defence.
This is a huge foreign policy failure.
Our aid programme has been hopelessly woke for years. We even split aid away from the Foreign Affairs Department. Aid workers boasted that only New Zealand aid was free of any politics. As a Pacific Islands Minister put it to me: “New Zealand tells us what we need. China asks us what we want”.
Diplomats and those working for aid agencies cannot wait to tell horror stories about Chinese aid. Many of the stories are true. What they do not recount are the horror stories about Western aid.
The Solomons is one of the 10 poorest counties on earth, yet Honiara has the Pacific’s highest power prices. Locals cannot afford to run a fridge. Power comes from climate-destroying diesel generators. Ten years ago, a private consortium, for which my son was working, proposed funding and building a geothermal plant just 20km from Honiara.
The World Bank offered soft loans for a hydro scheme, but only if geothermal did not proceed. Not one shovel of concrete for the dam has been poured. Costs have blown out. When eventually finished, it will be the most costly hydro power in the world. The private-sector geothermal project would have been halving power prices from 2018.
The real political power is wielded by the loggers who fund MPs’ election campaigns. After a tropical forest is logged, it looks like a WWI battlefield. A Government that threatened to introduce environmental controls was toppled by the loggers bribing Government MPs to defect.
Australia funded a project to investigate selective logging. I met the scientists. They said the trees grow so fast that selective logging was economically and environmentally viable. The Greens forced the Australian Government to stop the project. Refusing to assist sustainable logging means the environmental disaster continues.
In a country of 300 populated islands, our principal aid project to assist aviation is needed. But it is not enough to counter the Chinese. They are offering to fly jumbo jets full of Chinese tourists to the airports we are building.
America and Australia cannot bribe Solomon Islands to turn down aid from China. We should refuse to even try. We should work to get every country, including China, to co-operate. The greatest danger is that the Solomons - with an exploding population, half aged under 20, limited resources and facing climate change - will become a failed state. Then we have a real problem in our front yard.
Hopefully, the next Government takes foreign affairs seriously.
- Richard Prebble is a former leader of the Act Party and a former member of the Labour Party.