Defence Minister Phil Goff warned this month that New Zealand and Australian forces may no longer be welcome in the Solomon Islands and may have to leave. Events since have not suggested he was speaking out of turn. A brief visit to Honiara by the Foreign Minister included a meeting with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, which, in Winston Peters' words, "wasn't the easiest". At much the same time, Mr Sogavare appointed Julian Moti, a lawyer sought in Australia on child sex charges, as the country's Attorney-General. The slight was as calculated in intent as it was bankrupt in principle.
Despite this, Australia was adamant the appointment would have no direct impact on the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi), which was established in 2003 to return law and order and good governance after years of ethnic unrest. The mission, Australian-led but including all Pacific Islands Forum nations, initially achieved encouraging results. But much of its work was undone by riots that followed the election last year of Snyder Rini and his subsequent replacement by Mr Sogavare.
Since then, a succession of incidents and appointments have placed relations between Australia and the Solomons Government on a knife edge. Mr Sogavare has accused Ramsi of undermining his country's sovereignty. Australia's response has not always demonstrated a sensitivity about such concerns. Finally, the Pacific Islands Forum decided last year to review Ramsi. The upshot, among other things, is expected to be the formation of a special liaison group to improve communications between the Solomons Government and Ramsi.
That may help, as may a greater role for the non-Australian personnel of Ramsi in certain sensitive areas. But either way, there is too much at stake for the mission to pull the plug. Its departure would surely see the Solomons descend into chaos, a state that would make it ripe for exploitation by terrorists, drug traffickers and the like. The implications would be widespread. In regional terms, Ramsi's failure would also be a body blow for the Pacific Plan, the development template for forum countries.
Australia's reaction to the Moti appointment suggests that, perhaps belatedly, it recognises this. Events in the Solomons may not be to its liking, or that of New Zealand, but Ramsi must continue to strive for better governance. Another challenge looms, with Mr Sogavare's appointment of a Fijian, Mohammed Jahir Khan, as police commissioner. Mr Khan wants to rearm the police and import Fijian police officers, moves Ramsi disapproves of. It says armed police were part of the original problem and that Fijian-style policing would be inimical to the current situation.
The issue may be pivotal. The quality of a police force can play a huge part in rescuing a failing state. If the law is enforced impartially and professionally, people feel confidence in, and allegiance to, a state. If, however, the police are corrupt, or ethnically biased, the rule of law is undermined, and anarchy is a logical prospect.
The regional mission still appears to have the support of most Solomon Islanders, even if its reputation was dented by last year's riots. They do not relish a return to the social unrest, ethnic clashes and economic collapse that prompted the original request for help from their Pacific neighbours. This is Ramsi's trump card. It must seek to impress on Mr Sogavare the consequences of a failure to restore the rule of law and stable, non-corrupt administration. Success in this may be measured in small increments. The regional mission must be in for the long haul. If it is not, the outlook for the Solomons is, indeed, bleak.