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20 Oct 2020 4:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    The US denies geopolitical motives are behind a massive aid increase to the Solomon Islands' Malaita province

    The significant size of the US State Department aid for Malaita province in the Solomon Islands is either a coincidence or a geopolitical move to counter China's rising influence in the Pacific, an expert says.

    The United States has pledged $US25 million ($35 million) in aid for a Solomon Islands province that has demanded an independence referendum over the national Government's China policy, sparking concerns aid funding has been used in geopolitical "tussles".

    Malaita province has been in a bitter dispute with the central Government since 2019, when the Solomon Islands ended a 36-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and established official relations with Beijing.

    The sizeable nature of the aid pledge has worried Pacific experts, who are concerned the US and China are playing geopolitical games.

    "It's either a remarkable coincidence for some reason, someone in the US State Department has suddenly found Malaita on the map, or much more likely, it's got a lot to do with geopolitics", said Dr Terence Wood, a researcher with Australia National University's Development Policy Centre.

    US increase surprising but still far short of Australian aid

    The promise of $35 million in financial assistance comes as part of broader $280.5 million in aid to be provided by the US under their 2020 Pacific Pledge.

    The amount is significant for the Malaita province, amounting to 50 times the $500,000 the largest province in the Solomon Islands received from all nations in 2018.

    While it helps the US keep its place as a significant player in the region, Australia remains the largest provider of foreign aid to the Pacific.

    Papua New Guinea remains the largest recipient of Australian aid with $596 million. In the Pacific, Solomon Islands is next with $157 million.

    "It still won't make [the US] anywhere near as big a donor to the Pacific as Australia is, Australia will remain the dominant donor in the Pacific," Dr Wood told the ABC.

    The Lowy Institute's Pacific aid map, which was released last week, showed Chinese aid to the Pacific halved in 2019, to $169.7 million from $339.3 million in 2018.

    But promises of a new stadium in the Solomon Islands for the 2023 Pacific Games, the region's largest sporting event, is believed to have influenced policy in Beijing's favour in the country.

    Dr Wood said the escalation in US aid funding was surprising.

    "All the more so because in 2018, the United States only gave about $1.6 million to all of Solomon Islands," he said.

    "So, it seems to be a remarkable increase in interest in the country, and in particular, in one province.

    "The United States is going to become a very large presence in Malaita all of a sudden."

    Other funding through the Pacific Pledge is also set to benefit the Solomon Islands, but specific amounts have not been laid out for the country.

    The program will focus on agricultural and environmental development over a five-year period.

    Geopolitics playing out in Malaita

    China has claimed Taiwan as its territory.

    Under its One China policy, it denies any region in its territory the right to form diplomatic relations with other countries.

    "I'd almost certainly think that the United States is focusing on Malaita right now because it's seen as a potential source of support, in its own geostrategic struggle with China in the region", said Dr Wood.

    Chad Morris, public affairs officer for the US Embassy in Papua New Guinea, which is also responsible for the Solomons, has denied the aid was politically motivated.

    He said the plans have been in the works for two years.

    "The timing of the announcement around the money and funding approval is the normal course of business," he said.

    "There is no intention to make this a political move."

    Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Malaita province was further exacerbated when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare allowed a charter flight from China to enter the country, which had not yet recorded a case of coronavirus.

    It has since confirmed two cases of COVID-19.

    This prompted the Premier of Malatia, Daniel Suidani, to call for a referendum on independence.

    Aid should improve regional welfare

    The announcement was welcomed by the provincial Government.

    Premier Suidani said in a statement: "Nothing in such magnitude has ever been seen and felt by my people of Malaita Province since Solomon Islands gained independent in 1978. It is a great gift from a friend indeed."

    The Solomon Islands Government has responded cautiously.

    "Meanwhile, the National Government wishes to caution certain groups and individuals within the country, especially, the people of Malaita Province to respect proper Government processes and mechanisms in dealing with aid assistance," it said in a statement.

    The Government said a detailed plan on how the money would be spent and what activities would be carried out would have to be developed first and then approved by cabinet.

    Mr Morris said the USAid program has the blessing of both the Solomon Islands' national and provincial governments.

    "While the focus in on Malaita, that does not mean other provinces within the Solomon Islands won't also benefit," said Mr Morris.

    Dr Wood urged countries giving aid to think about the welfare of all those who live in the region.

    "That's what really matters," he said.

    "It's the wellbeing of people [in the] Pacific, not these geostrategic tussles".

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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