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Solomon Islands election watched by US, China amid Pacific…

By Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer

April 12 (Reuters) – A national election in the Solomon Islands, the first since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a security pact with Beijing, will be watched next week for its potential to jolt the U.S.-China rivalry in the South Pacific.

The United States and Australia are concerned about China’s naval ambitions in Pacific countries, as tensions rise over Taiwan.

Despite its population of just 700,000, the Solomon Islands occupies a strategic position 1,600km (990 miles) northeast of Australia, strewn with World War Two wrecks that remind it was once a pivotal battlefield.

Voters will be focused on hospitals struggling without medicines, education shortcomings and inadequate roads when they cast ballots on April 17, opposition party lawmakers said.

But Sogavare’s rapid embrace of China since he won power four years ago – including inviting Chinese police into the archipelago and switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan – is also in the spotlight.

“The services and economy are really in a desperate situation. The issue of China and this new relationship is also important. That is a source of anger towards Sogavare,” said Democratic Alliance Party leader Rick Houenipwela, who was prime minister before Sogavare.

Sogavare, installed as prime minister by independent candidates who won a combined 37% of the vote in 2019, has pointed to hosting the Pacific Games as a major achievement and pledged to strengthen relations with China.

China donated stadiums for the Games, and is building ports, roads and a Huawei telecommunications network.

Opposition parties said they would scrap the China security pact or hold a national referendum on it, and reduce China’s influence by accepting more infrastructure support from U.S. allies.


Peter Kenilorea, whose United Party won 10% of votes in 2019, said he wants Solomon Islands to return to being a reliable partner of Australia and New Zealand, and would abolish the China security pact.

“We’re not convinced it’s in the interests of Solomon Islands,” he said.

Closely watched will be election results in Malaita, the most populous province, which has long criticised deepening China ties and is where opposition parties hope to gain nine seats.

Malaita’s governor Daniel Suidani refused to allow Chinese companies to operate in the province until he was ousted in a no-confidence vote last year.

His replacement, Martin Fini, has signed Chinese cooperation deals, including last week, when China’s special envoy for the Pacific Qian Bo visited Malaita.

The prime minister is selected by winning lawmakers, often weeks after the election results.

Houenipwela’s party has formed a coalition with Matthew Wale’s Solomon Islands Democratic Party, which won the biggest vote (14%) in 2019, lam bang cap 3 and is seeking a combined majority of 26 seats.

Australian National University Pacific expert Graeme Smith said the shift away independents was a significant development this election, with Sogavare also convincing many government members to join his new party.

Australia has sent 400 police and military to assist Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) with election security, alongside New Zealand and Pacific forces. Chinese police will remain in a training role, the RSIPF said.

Election observer groups from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific, Japan, Europe and the U.S. will monitor voting and counting, with national and provincial polls held on the same day.

Sogavare, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has said publicly he would not host a Chinese military base – which Washington and Canberra have said is a red line.

China says its security cooperation Solomon Islands is a sovereign matter for the two countries and has denied it wants a military base, but U.S. military leaders remain unconvinced.

“The increased policing presence in the Solomon Islands is concerning, that’s a foot in the door, and then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Commander of the United States Indo Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, said in an interview. “But the goal is to have the ability to deliver infrastructure and ultimately a place for Chinese military power.” (Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer; Editing by Lincoln Feast)


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