EILEEN NATUZZI |
For the past two decades US foreign engagement with Solomon Islands has practised touch-and-go diplomacy: brief fleeting visits to Honiara. In August 2014 then Secretary John Kerry made an unscheduled stopover in Honiara. Secretary Kerry was the first US Secretary of State to visit the country. In addition to touring the US War Memorial and Bloody Ridge (the site of fierce fighting during the Guadalcanal campaign), he also addressed climate change and the disproportionate impacts it has on Pacific island countries.
In response to the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement, Senior White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell visited Honiara briefly in April. Arriving the day after the security agreement had been signed, Mr Campbell held meetings with Prime Minister Sogavare, as well as opposition leaders. He promised to expedite a number of US steps to re-engage.
While a return to high-level visits is a welcome development, short well-orchestrated ones have done little to repair Washington’s years of neglect. Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman’s recent three-day visit to Honiara is a positive deviation from past touch-and-go visits but the messaging sounds the same.
At the 80th anniversary commemoration of the Guadalcanal Landings, notable for the absence of PM Manasseh Sogavare, Deputy Secretary Sherman said, “It is up to us to decide if we want to continue having societies where people are free to speak their minds. If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people.” This is a strong statement alluding to recent geopolitical events and censorship concerns raised by government control of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation and speculation that the 2023elections will be delayed. The message would have been more powerful if the Deputy Secretary had addressed the people of Solomon Islands directly: It is up to you to decide if you want…”
US past touch and go visits have been ineffective at best. The stakes are higher now due to China’s influence in the region and the US has begun to step up its game.
The promise of establishing an Embassy in Honiara is well under way with the appointment of a Charge d’Affaires, Russel Comeau and a potential location identified. A Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) threshold grant of $23 million over 4 years was awarded to the Solomon Islands Government. This program addresses sustainable forestry and establishing lands for tourism. The US continues to work toward re-establishment of the Peace Corps and increasing support for the removal of Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) left over from WWII. Conspicuously absent from US recommitment, however, is a big, bold, new offering that will truly signal a return to Solomon Islands, especially to the people living there.
Future US visits must build on this recent one by including meetings with everyday people living in Honiara as well as people living on outer islands. Conversations must be exchanges that foster an understanding of what the people’s needs are and the US must be prepared to hear uncomfortable views about how we are seen. That is how rebuilding relations must begin. A new US-Solomon Islands development portfolio must include input from the people as they will in turn determine the future of the country through their vote.
Dorothy Wickham, a reporter based in Honiara, has said repeatedly “what Solomon Islanders need is education and health.” In her recent editorial in the New York Times Dorothy points to the lack of US presence as one reason for Solomon Islands leaning into China for aid. She also calls for transparency in news coverage of parliamentary affairs. Dorothy Wickham was not invited to speak with US visiting dignitaries nor was she granted an interview with them.
Despite US knowledge of the significant health challenges the people of Solomon Islands face none of our US high-level visitors have toured the National Referral Hospital in Honiara. It was built where the 9th Army field hospital was during Bikfala Faet (WWII). It is in dire need of an upgrade and relocation away from the edge of Iron Bottom Sound. In order to craft a meaningful development partnership portfolio US representatives should meet with the doctors and nurses who care for Solomon Islanders despite being under resourced while working in crumbling infrastructure. Without input from Solomon Islands citizens US diplomatic visits could continue to perpetuate weak foreign policy that cannot counter China’s big presence. We must shift toward giving the people what they need, not what we want to give.
To influence current events and rebuild a meaningful relationship with Solomon Islands US representatives must sit down with people from the villages outside of Honiara. The US must be accessible to the local press whose job it is to inform the people. The Deputy Secretary’s press briefing in Honiara was a start. It is important to learn about the everyday challenges Solomon Islanders face in obtaining healthcare and education. Discussions with leadership cannot be the sole means of crafting a new portfolio of aid and influencing regional events.
As Michael Auslin, an Asia research fellow at the Hoover Institution said, the US “can’t make up for years of neglect with a few high-level visits and expect everything to work out fine … If the Solomons are as strategically important as is being made out in Washington, then increase your bid, offer them more than the Chinese are offering them, offer them more development assistance, offer them whatever they want.”
To do this the US needs to learn what Solomon Islanders want first through time and talk.
Eileen Natuzzi is a US physician and a public health epidemiologist who has been working on health capacity building partnerships in Solomon Islands for nearly 20 years.