On April 17, Solomon Islands held an election that was closely watched by China and the United States and its partners. In the following weeks, members of parliament (MPs) jockeyed to form a governing coalition, finally electing Jeremiah Manele as prime minister on May 2.

Passengers arrive at the port in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Aug. 12, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)
Passengers arrive at the port in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Aug. 12, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

USIP’s Gordon Peake and Camilla Pohle explain what happened in the election and why it matters to U.S. interests and regional stability.

Who is Manele, and what can regional observers expect from him on policy?

Jeremiah Manele was the foreign minister in the previous government of Manasseh Sogavare and a member of the same political party. Sogavare was a polarizing figure in the country and the most avowedly pro-China leader in the Pacific. In an unexpected move, Sogavare stepped back as party leader for Manele in late April, allowing him to take the lead of their party and its 15 seats in the 50-seat parliament. Smaller parties and independently elected parliamentarians make up the rest of Manele’s governing coalition. Opposition leader Matthew Wale, a longtime critic of Sogavare’s China policies, ran against Manele.

Solomon Islands is a parliamentary system where MPs, not voters, choose who becomes leader. It’s a rampantly corrupt system where votes and ministries are sold to the highest bidder, and aptitude and command of the policy issues are not the prime factors in how ministries get awarded. Sometimes, it is Chinese officials and business interests that foot the bill.

Manele is steeped equally in both the “pay-to-play” elite politics of Honiara as well as the world of regional diplomacy. It was he, not Sogavare, who signed the paperwork switching recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. He has a reputation of being a more stolid and predictable leader than his predecessor.

In his recent statements, Manele has invoked the stock phrase of Pacific leaders riding the current wave of geopolitical attention. His country, he said, would be “friends to all and enemies to none.” There are obvious advantages in hedging. Whether this mainstay of the country’s patronage-based political system has answers for his country’s catalogue of problems is an open question. He is expected to announce his 100-day plan soon.

Why have external actors been so interested in this election?

This election has been framed both outside and inside Solomon Islands as a referendum on the country’s relations with China. In the last five years, Solomon Islands moved steadily closer to Beijing under the leadership of Sogavare, beginning with the diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019. The switch stoked frustrations that boiled over into riots in the capital of Honiara in 2021. Solomon Islands, but Malaita Province especially, had benefited greatly from Taiwan’s aid programs, and the switch cut off that aid. Some Solomon Islanders felt a greater affinity for the democratically governed Taiwan, and others were concerned about the potential influx of Chinese companies and development projects.

In 2022, Solomon Islands struck a security agreement with Beijing, sparking concerns in Canberra and Washington that the pact could lead to an eventual Chinese military presence. Secrecy surrounding the agreement exacerbated these concerns. Its full text has not been officially released, but parts were leaked to the media in 2022.

The issue is significant because a Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands would complicate U.S. and Australian defense planning, threaten access to nearby sea lanes, and allow Beijing to project power in the South Pacific, well beyond the “first island chain” of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, which American and Australian strategists have long seen as a check on China’s military expansion.

The pact sparked concerns domestically, too. Some opposition figures said it was more beneficial to China than it was to Solomon Islands. The agreement also contains an unprecedented provision allowing the Solomon Islands government to seek assistance from Chinese security forces to maintain social order in times of unrest. This raised fears that Sogavare could use it to crack down on protesters and political opponents, especially in Malaita, which has long-standing tensions with the capital. Sogavare never had cause to invoke the security pact.

For Solomon Islanders and regional observers concerned about China’s engagement in the country, this election has become a crucial focal point. Wale and other opposition figures condemned the switch from Taiwan to China and the security agreement with Beijing, and indicated that they would reverse these policies if able to form a governing coalition.

What issues were at stake for voters?

While China-Taiwan dynamics and policing angles often take center stage in Western discussions of Solomon Islands, they’re not the only issues that matters to voters. Some Solomon Islanders interviewed by Radio New Zealand did cite the China-Taiwan issue as the reason they were voting. But others cited the persistent lack of government services, ranging from healthcare to education; poor infrastructure development; and politicians’ lack of delivery on their promises.

Some voters are also simply tired of Sogavare, who has served as prime minister four times. He was a controversial figure in Solomon Islands even before he switched recognition and signed the security pact with China. His election in 2019 was met with riots

Sogavare’s term is aptly described by the phrase “democratic backsliding.” In 2020, the president of the Solomon Islands Medical Association was sacked over a Facebook post criticizing the government. In 2022, Sogavare introduced a bill to delay the election from 2023 to 2024, drawing criticism and alarm from politicians and civil society. Under his term, already murky governance has become even less transparent. His rhetoric has leaned anti-democratic too, and in a campaign speech in March he criticized democracy and the values associated with it.

Apart from the election delay and threats to freedom of speech and the press, there are many causes for concern: Solomon Islands ranks in the bottom third of USAID’s indicators for government effectiveness. The State Department characterized corruption as “pervasive” in the forestry, mining and fisheries sectors, and logging is deforesting the country at an unsustainable rate. More than 60 percent of Solomon Islands women have suffered interpersonal violence. At least 75 percent of the population is under 35, and youth unemployment is high, creating a large swath of the country’s population that is disaffected.

Will this new government change the dynamic of Honiara-Washington relations?

Solomon Islands was long a U.S. diplomatic backwater; the U.S. Embassy closed in 1993 and reopened again in 2022. Bilateral relations have been tense in recent years, as Sogavare would either be unavailable for visiting U.S. delegations or criticize the White House. There was a local perception — whether fair or otherwise — that the United States was backing one set of leaders over another, inflaming political divisions.

While the new prime minister may be less mercurial and more diplomatic than Sogavare, he was a senior part of Sogavare’s government, so a degree of continuity can be expected. As always in diplomacy, the test will not be so much a government’s words but its actions.

In the midst of this complicated context, the United States is facing the challenge of building its relationships and its reputation in Solomon Islands again. In a society where relationships are currency, it takes time to build those reserves and dispel the notion that Washington is interested in the island nation purely because of wider geopolitical considerations. Of course, Washington is concerned about China’s engagement in the Solomon Islands, and that won’t change anytime soon — but having a seat at the table and having access to the country’s decision-makers can necessitate walking a fine line on anti-China rhetoric. It also requires reckoning with Solomon Islands’ clientelism, which has provided China with the means to pursue elite capture.

Setting aside geopolitics, Solomon Islands faces numerous challenges, from climate change to an alarming rate of biodiversity loss to persistent challenges surrounding governance and foreign aid. There is much still to do to remove hazardous unexploded ordnance left over from World War II. As elsewhere in the region, responding to local priorities will make or break local perceptions of U.S. engagement. A lot of that work has to be done carefully on the ground in a capital where U.S. diplomats have long been absent.

PHOTO: Passengers arrive at the port in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Aug. 12, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).

PUBLICATION TYPE: Question and Answer