HONIARA (REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Australian police began taking control of the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on Friday (Nov 26) after days of violent protests in the South Pacific island nation, witnesses said.
Tear gas was deployed in Chinatown where looting and the burning of buildings continued on Friday morning and a new curfew was expected to be imposed later in the day, a resident told Reuters.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who requested help from Australia, on Friday blamed foreign countries for stoking the violent protests, but did not name any.
Many of the protesters come from the most populous province Malaita and feel overlooked by the government in Guadalcanal province and oppose its 2019 decision to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish formal links with China.
“I feel sorry for my people in Malaita because they are fed with false and deliberate lies about the switch,” Mr Sogavare told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
“These very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don’t want ties with the People’s Republic of China, and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution," he said.
China and Taiwan have been rivals in the South Pacific for decades with some island nations switching allegiances.
China views Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified by force, if necessary, and hence has no right to state-to-state ties, which the government in Taipei hotly disputes.
Only 15 countries maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The last two to ditch Taipei in favour of Beijing were the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in September 2019, leaving Taiwan with just four supporters in the region.
Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokesman Joanne Ou said in a statement to Reuters: “We have nothing to do with the unrest."
Solomon Islands resident Transform Aqorau said more than a hundred people were on Friday looting shops, before Australian Federal Police officers arrived.
“The scenes here are really chaotic. It is like a war zone,” Mr Aqorau told Reuters by telephone on Friday morning. “There is no public transport and it is a struggle with the heat and the smoke. Buildings are still burning.”
He said later Australian police were “taking control of Chinatown”.
A statement on the Solomon Islands government website said public servants with the exception of essential workers should stay at home “due to the current unrest in Honiara City”.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was sending 100 police personnel and was “clearly focused on stability in our region”.
Australian police were previously deployed to the Solomon Islands in 2003 under a peace keeping mission authorised by a Pacific Island Forum declaration and stayed for a decade.
Severe internal unrest and armed conflict from 1998 to 2003 involved militant groups from Guadalcanal and the neighbouring island of Malaita, and fighting on the outskirts of Honiara.
Earlier on Friday, Solomon Islands police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse rioters trying to reach Mr Sogavare's private residence, AFP reporters on the scene said.
A small number of officers successfully dispersed the crowd who had set fire to at least one building, driving them back towards the centre of Honiara.
The leader of the Solomon Islands had blamed other powers for anti-China riots.
"Unfortunately, it is influenced and encouraged by other powers," Mr Sogavare said, adding: "I don't want to name names, we'll leave it there - we know who they are."
Police this week used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse about 1,000 anti-China protesters who were demanding Mr Sogavare's resignation in the capital of Honiara, the ABC reported, while the Solomon Islands Herald reported that protesters looted and damaged shops in the city's Chinatown and marched to the Chinese embassy.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the security forces were meant to calm the situation without taking a side on internal issues, adding that he did not see evidence of external involvement in the conflict.
The conflict shows that the power play between the United States and China is having real consequences even in unlikely, remote corners of the world previously removed from geopolitical tensions.
"Every region is now in the contest," said Mr Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat who was based in the Solomons and who now is an expert in Pacific geopolitics for the Lowy Institute research group.
"Beijing has ambitions to become the regional hegemon. With sufficient local support in a Pacific country, China could potentially establish a military and security presence, which would increase its ability to project force in the Indo-Pacific," he said.
Over the past decade, China's growing influence in the 14-nation Pacific Islands - whose cumulative population of just 13 million is sprawled over thousands of islands and atolls in a region stretching across 15 per cent of the world's surface - has worried the US and its allies, particularly Australia.
China has reacted strongly to the violence, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying at a regular press briefing on Thursday in Beijing that "we are greatly concerned over attacks on Chinese citizens and businesses and have asked the local government to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese nationals and institutions".
He added: "All attempts to disrupt the normal developmental relations between China and the Solomon Islands are just futile."
Lawmakers in Washington and Canberra have warned developing countries to avoid taking Chinese loans, saying that Beijing would use the debt as geopolitical leverage. China has spent at least US$1.7 billion (S$2.3 billion) in aid and loans to the Pacific Islands in the past decade, much of it on much-needed transport and utility infrastructure, according to Lowy Institute data.
Mr Sora, who is from the institute, said Mr Sogavare's claims that geopolitical tensions were the sole reason behind the conflict were too simplistic, noting longstanding grievances between the provinces and the central government.
A statement this week published by "Honiara Based Malaitans" made no mention of Taiwan while accusing Mr Sogavare of trying to install a "new pet government" in Malaita and calling him a "useless leader".
Still, the former diplomat said that in the last two years since acknowledging Beijing over Taiwan, the country has received huge sums of money and economic support.
"The injection of funds in a small country has been hugely significant, especially compared to what it was receiving from Taiwan," Mr Sora said.
"Honiara is awash in stories that since Beijing has taken this interest in the Solomon Islands, the money flowing to parliamentarians outside of formal development packages has increased substantially. The character of that relationship has become more brazen."