Why Is Australia Sending Troops to Solomon Islands?

protests solomon islands

Trouble appears to be brewing in the Pacific as protests spiral out of control in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara. The country’s parliament building has been burnt to the ground and shops in the Chinatown district have been attacked as protesters demand the resignation of the prime minister.g

This is the second day of unrest that has gripped Honiara despite government imposed lockdown and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has called on Australia to help bring peace to the island. Scott Morrison has responded by sending around 120 ADF soldiers and police officers to restore stability to the island nation.

Morrison has said that he expects the deployment to last just a few weeks but Sogavare has blamed foreign powers for the rioting in his country.

The country had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down,” he said.

“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country. However, today’s events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go.”

So, just what is happening in the Solomon Islands and why has Australia stepped in to calm the situation? Here’s what you need to know.

What’s Happening in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands lie roughly 1500kms to the north east of Australia and around 1800kms to the east of Papua New Guinea. They are made up of six major islands and over 900 small islands and has been continuously inhabited since around 30,000 BC when sea levels were lower and the islands were far more physically connected. They were first sighted by Europeans with the arrival of the Spanish in 1595 who dubbed them Islas Salomón. The British then claimed them in 1893 and the region was the site of several bloody battles between the Americans and the Japanese during World War II.

The islands became a sovereign protectorate of Britain in 1975 and achieved independence in 1978 as a constitutional monarchy. The country has seen its fair share of struggles, with rival ethnic factions bringing the country to the brink of civil war during the late 90s and early 2000s and much of this tension remains today.

Australia has long had an interest in peacekeeping in the region, managing to broker peace a peace deal in 2000 which collapsed and, in 2003, 2,200 mainly ANZAC forced were deployed to the islands.

Recent tensions have been brewing for years over the influence of China in the country. There has been significant conflict with the minority Chinese community who live in the Solomon Islands, with a riot breaking out in 2006 that destroyed much of Chinatown in Honiara. Solomon Islanders have long suspected that certain politicians accept bribes from Chinese businesspeople and that large sums of money are exported from the country to China. Australia again sent troops in 2006 to calm this outbreak which eventually saw the PM at the time resign.

The current PM has been ousted from government twice before after no-confidence votes and, in 2019, announced that the Solomons would stop recognising Taiwan as a country, one of the few remaining nations who do, and switch allegiances to China. This was after Beijing promised to deliver $730 million in aid to the country, one of the poorest in the Pacific.


Protests erupted in Honiara on Wednesday, with thousands of people on the streets protesting the influence of China and the switching of diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan. It’s not exactly clear what sparked the protests however one student at the University of the South Pacific has said that “angry young people have just had enough”

The son of the Solomon Islands’ first prime minister and opposition MP, Peter Kenilorea Jr, last month told the Indian newspaper, the Sunday Guardian, that the country’s foreign policy was being “overrun” by China and that disagreements over Beijing’s influence could lead to violence.

“Things don’t build up very clearly in the Solomon Islands — things explode suddenly,” he said.

“The analogy that I think is most apt is that we in the Pacific Islands say we are on the frontline of climate change — here in the Solomons, we are also on the frontline of the aggression from the Chinese Communist Party.

“The political warfare is on. The geopolitical frontline is in our tiny nation of the Solomon Islands, and even within the provinces within the Solomons.

“We have one province (Malaita) that has been targeted and harassed — this is a real everyday occurrence.”

Why is Australia Getting Involved?

Australia has both historical and strategic interests in playing the peacekeeping role in the Solomons. As above, we’ve sent troops to the islands numerous times to quell protests at the request of Solomon Islander heads of state.

This is what has happened again this time around, with PM Sogavare calling Australia the “best friend” of the Solomon Islands.

“On behalf of the people of the Solomon Islands, I just want to thank the people and the government of Australia for coming to our aid.”

Of course, this argument goes far beyond the Solomon Islands and the need to help our neighbours. The influence of China in the Pacific is one of significant strategic concern to Australia and something that the current administration has made a significant focus.

Aware that the arrival of Australian forces on Solomon Island territory could be interpreted as a move to support anti-Beijing sentiment on the islands, particularly if the government is overthrown, Morrison has been particularly careful with his language around deployment.

“Australia’s response is under the treaty that we have with the Solomon Islands and that is with the people of the Solomon Islands – that is between two governments, and it is there regardless of who is running either of those governments,” he said.

“We are seeking to take no part in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands but simply to ensure that any issues they have can be addressed in a calm and peaceful way”.

The rapid response is in part so that Australia can step in before Beijing could. It’s also part of an ongoing “Pacific Step-Up” programme that Australia has been overseeing since 2016 in an effort to bolster Pacific nations against the rising influence of China in the region. In 2018, we agreed to fund a new high-speed internet cable from Australia to the Solomon Islands before Huawei could agree to build the infrastructure.

How Bad Could This Be?

Morrison has said that ADF forces are in-country purely as riot protection. They will carry firearms but are instructed not to get involved in any conflicts.

“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security to enable the normal constitutional processes within the Solomon Islands to be able to deal with various issues that have arisen and that be done in a climate of peace, stability and security,” Morrison said.

With deployment expected to last just a few weeks, it’s unlikely that this conflict could spiral into anything larger like a broader Pacific conflict with China. However, with the parliament building in Honiara now in ruins and loud calls for the Prime Minister to step down, Sogavare could face another no-confidence vote which might see the election of an administration less friendly to Beijing.

If that was the case, China would certainly step up its influence in the country, further fuelling tensions in the Solomons. It’s a worst-case scenario but it’s likely that this protracted struggle will not go away, even after our troops leave.

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