In the China decision, many saw another example of the national government ignoring the island’s views.
This sense of injustice, while genuine, also provided fertile ground for political agitators.
The Malaitan government, led by Premier Daniel Suidani, has been particularly deft at playing the internal and global politics of the China “switch” to its advantage.
Soon after the switch to China occurred, Suidani outlawed Chinese businesses in Malaita – a demand of the Malaita for Democracy group, whose ultimate aspiration is for Malaita to become an independent state.
Within days of China’s recognition, Suidani had emerged as the leader of the anti-China movement in the country.
Seeing the value in this anti-China posture, Suidani began engaging in creative, and illegal, international diplomacy aimed at bolstering his political position at home.
In March 2020, six months after Honiara recognised Beijing, one of Suidani’s advisers travelled to Australia for a meeting at Taiwan’s economic and cultural office – Taipei’s de facto consulate – in Brisbane.
There, an informal arrangement between the Malaitans and the Taiwanese was struck, which resulted in large quantities of Taiwanese aid arriving in Malaita, in contravention of national law.
The consignments were draped in Taiwanese and Malaitan flags and paraded in front of journalists. The ceremonies were intentionally provocative, intended to anger Sogavare, provoke the Chinese embassy to the Solomon Islands, and extract support for Suidani from the democratic world.
The plan worked. Sogavare admonished Suidani, prompting the Malaitans to rally around their Premier.
The Chinese embassy lambasted the Premier’s actions, also emboldening Suidani’s stance and legitimising his claims that China was interfering in internal Solomon Islands affairs.
And the United States announced a $US25 million ($35 million) aid package explicitly for Malaita, which, as former Australian diplomat Mihai Sora notes, is 10 times what the province usually receives in foreign aid annually.
To some, Taiwan’s assistance to Malaita appeared prompted by Taipei.
But the inverse is true: understanding Taiwan’s desperation to maintain relevance in the region, Malaita proactively courted Taiwanese assistance for its gain, knowing Taipei wouldn’t refuse, and that any political fallout from the manoeuvre would ultimately benefit Malaita.
There is a trope that Pacific nations are merely pawns in a global geopolitical contest.
But as Suidani has shown, Pacific actors are capable of leveraging geopolitical realities for their own gain, routinely shaping and influencing the decision-making of foreign powers.
That a provincial leader from an impoverished, tiny Pacific island managed to get under China’s skin, manipulate Taiwanese foreign policy, and extract $25 million from Washington should not go unnoticed.
The actions of the Malaitan Premier are not singularly responsible for the unrest in Honiara, but they have exacerbated public anger towards the Sogavare government, and highlight the complex local realities that drive internal unrest in Solomons.
Given Sogavare’s lack of popularity, the Australia’s ADF deployment is not without its risks.
Hardliner Malaitans view the deployment as “protection for Sogavare and his government”. The lack of support by key Malaitan figures for the ADF deployment is conspicuous.
If the ADF deployment helps Sogavare remain power for years to come, the fundamental dynamics driving this week’s unrest will remain unresolved.
Ed Cavanough is a researcher, journalist and PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, studying Solomon Islands’ China switch.