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Island Nations’ Election Results Reshuffle Geopolitical Landscape for China
Island Nations’ Election Results Reshuffle Geopolitical Landscape for China

Island Nations’ Election Results Reshuffle Geopolitical Landscape for China

On April 17, the Solomon Islands held its first general election since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a controversial security pact with China in 2022. Under his administration, the country switched its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in September 2019, leading to periodic protests that boiled over into “anti-China” riots in November 2021. As Kirsty Needham reported for Reuters, after serving as prime minister on four different occasions and after failing to win a majority, Sogavare just announced he would not seek another term:

Solomon Islands incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he would not be a candidate when lawmakers vote this week for a new prime minister, and his political party would instead back former Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele.

[…] Sogavare, who narrowly held his on seat in last Wednesday’s national election, announced he would not be a candidate for prime minister at a televised press conference on Monday evening.

[…] Election results showed Sogavare’s [Ownership, Unity, and Responsibility] party won 15 of the 50 seats in parliament, while the opposition CARE coalition has 20. Independents and micro parties won 15 seats, and courting the independents will be the key to reaching the 26 seats needed to form a government. Sogavare said on Monday his party had support for 28 seats.

Nominations for candidates for prime minister opened on Monday, and lawmakers are expected to vote on Thursday. The nomination vote had previously been expected to take place next week, on May 8. [Source]

Geopolitics is at play,” Sogavare said, adding that his government had been “under pressure from the United States and Western allies” and that he had been “accused of many things.” His decision to cultivate closer relations with Beijing garnered intense pushback from Western capitals worried about expanding Chinese influence in what Western media and officials described as “Australia’s backyard.”

In a piece for The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute, Jon Fraenkel argued that “what transpired on 17 April was an emphatic defeat for the ruling party,” Sogavare’s Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) party:

18 of the incumbent OUR ministers lost their seats and none of the party’s ten newer challenger candidates was successful. The economic downturn since 2020, and a major contraction in log exports to China, conflicted with Sogavare’s promises of considerable developmental gains arising from the new diplomatic disposition.

Worse still, OUR suffered a major setback on the island of Malaita. Following the diplomatic switch to China, the provincial government on Malaita had defied the national government by retaining links with Taiwan, with some assistance from the United States. In early 2023, after a protracted showdown, the island’s premier, Daniel Suidani, was ousted in a no-confidence vote that was openly orchestrated by the national government. He was replaced by a pro-China administration led by Martin Fini. Yet in the provincial elections, which were held simultaneously with the national elections on 17 April, not only was Suidani returned to the provincial assembly but his successor as premier lost his seat. Four of the eight OUR incumbents representing Malaita in the national parliament were ousted. In the west, Sogavare fought off a strong challenge in his own East Choiseul constituency, where he claimed that the United States backed his major rival. [Source]

Edward Acton Cavanough, author of “Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch,” told Politico: “The results of the election so far suggest that the governing coalition of pro-Beijing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has taken a hit. But whether or not this is related specifically to Sogavare’s China stance, or whether it is a reflection of the general apathy or frustrations towards the government  is hard to distinguish.” Nonetheless, in a pattern familiar from other cases, some Western analysts framed the election as merely a referendum on China. In an interview with The Diplomat, Cavanough painted a complex picture of the inception of Sogavare’s pro-China position and its economic and geopolitical impacts:

Sogavare, in my view, has always been skeptical of the Taiwanese relationship. But he was not the original proponent of a Switch to China, and indeed didn’t campaign on it before the 2019 election. He saw the growing support for a China switch among his own MPs as a threat to his own power if he didn’t act. And he also saw in a China relationship an opportunity to both directly fund key projects he wanted to define his legacy, like the Pacific Games, as well as an opportunity for greater leverage over Western aid partners.

[…] So Sogavare didn’t conceive the Switch. But he capitalized on it in a way that fundamentally strengthened his own political interests. The overall benefits to the country are harder to identify.

[…] The economic impact of the Switch has appeared negligible: While there’ve been some significant projects funded by the Chinese, most notably a major sports stadium, the benefits of this aren’t being seen in economic data in a significant way, nor on the ground in communities. The reality is that China has yet to invest in any projects that are really designed to solve long-term economic development issues. They’ve so far invested in projects that the Sogavare government wanted them to. For most people in Solomons, their lives remain stubbornly the same, despite all the fanfare.

What the Switch has done is put Solomons on the global stage. It has given Manasseh Sogavare extraordinary leverage over traditional partners, and seen Solomon Islands issues taken seriously by leaders as senior as U.S. President Joe Biden. [Source]

Meanwhile, another island nation recently completed a national election with high geopolitical stakes for China. The Maldives held its parliamentary election last week, resulting in a landslide victory for the party of President Mohamed Muizzu, which won two-thirds of the seats. The Economist wrote that this “confirms the trend” that the “Maldives is cosying up to China”:

The victory is likely to help Mr Muizzu, who took over as president in November, change his country’s foreign policy. He has sought to make good on an election promise to reorient the archipelago away from India, traditionally the Maldives’ closest regional economic and security partner, and step up cooperation with China.

[…] Mr Muizzu claims that his foreign policy is merely “pro-Maldives” rather than pro- or anti-China or India. Yet he won last year’s presidential election on an “India out” platform. He promised to rid the atoll of India’s small military presence, which consists of a few dozen soldiers manning rescue helicopters donated by India, and to attract more investment from China. After he took office he eschewed the tradition adhered to by his predecessors, all of whom made their first foreign visit to Delhi. Instead, he went first to Turkey and then to the United Arab Emirates. In January he made a five-day state visit to China, where he met with President Xi Jinping and signed a raft of co-operation agreements. He has yet to visit India. [Source]

The Maldives is also grappling with growing debt, low revenue, and depleting foreign reserves, but retains sizable economic dependencies on India, all of which provides opportunities and constraints for Muizzu’s pivot to China. Given these dynamics, Zaheena Rasheed from Al Jazeera described the extent to which China might hold leverage over the Maldives

Despite Muizzu making a visit in January to Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping called him an “old friend”, it is not clear what help, if any, was offered [regarding the Maldives’ debt issues]. Maldivian media reported that China agreed to provide grant assistance to Maldives — although the amount was not disclosed — and said it would consider restructuring debt repayments, a large chunk of which is due in 2026.

According to [London-based financial intelligence provider] REDD, however, the restructuring of Chinese debt alone is unlikely to be sufficient for Maldives to avoid increased external debt distress because of an Islamic bond worth $500m that is also reaching maturity in 2026.

A former senior government official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said China may now be more amenable given Muizzu’s landslide win. “China has a lot of leverage,” the ex-official said, and will likely seek favours in return, including the ratification of a Free Trade Agreement that has languished since 2014 and access to key east-west trade routes that Maldives straddles. Indian and Western diplomats have previously expressed worries this access may pave the way for China to secure an outpost in the Indian Ocean. [Source]