A charter flight from China to the Solomon Islands has fuelled growing tensions over the Pacific nation’s China policies and has triggered an announcement of plans for an independence referendum by its largest province.
The chartered flight landed on Wednesday night carrying stranded Solomon Islanders, new Chinese ambassador Li Ming and Chinese officials and workers who will build new sports facilities for one of the region’s biggest events, the 2023 Pacific Games.
Mr Ming will head up the new Chinese Embassy after the Solomons last year severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established official relations with China.
Tensions between Malaita Province in the country’s east and the national government have been rising ever since.
The Malaita Provincial Government remains supportive of Taiwan and was reprimanded by the national government earlier this year when it accepted COVID-19 donations from the government in Taipei.
A statement from Premier of Malaita Daniel Suidani this week said that “with the continued pressure from the national government for Malaita to accept PRC [People’s Republic of China] … it is time for Malaita people to see whether they are willing to be part of a country whose leadership is becoming dictatorial”.
Mr Suidani told the ABC his administration would go ahead with a referendum to make Malaita an independent state.
But the call for self-determination in the province has been simmering for decades.
Peter Kenilorea Junior, a member of the National Parliament from Malaita Province, said while the views of his province should be respected, any process looking at independence would be a long and complex one.
“It’s a heavily political issue. Anyone’s right to self-determination to be recognised under international law, is something that would have to involve the national government too,” he said.
“This sentiment for independence has been simmering for some time but in my view, the recent events have perhaps made the Premier look to move towards this now”.
‘Is that the way to look after our people?’
The recent events alluded to by Mr Kenilorea Jr include this week’s flight from the Chinese city of Guangzhou, which was chartered by the Solomon Islands Government paid for by the Chinese Government.
Churches, civil society groups and politicians have voiced their anxieties about the flight because Solomon Islands has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Mr Suidani was one of the most vocal against the decision to allow the flight to land.
“You talk so much about looking after our borders and looking after the health issues,” he said.
But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the flight was a national priority, with the country needing the economic growth that would come with the construction of a new stadium and facilities.
“I’m fully aware that some decisions might not go down well with some of our fellow citizens, let me assure you all, that all decisions are made after careful assessment and analysis based on evidence,” he said.
“We, your leaders, have been mandated by the people to serve in the best interest of our nation and its citizens.”
China brought its outbreak under control and has reported just 169 cases in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Evacuation protest against Chinese citizens
The flight, though, brought unease in the capital of Malaita Province, Auki, where an unhappy community group issued notices for the town’s Chinese-owned stores to close down and leave town.
“As part of our stand against China’s dealing within this country, we are staging an evacuation protest to all Chinese citizens who are currently residing and operating businesses in Auki,” it read.
The stores in Auki were temporarily closed on Wednesday but the situation has eased after police mediation.
Solomon Islands Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau said they would continue investigating and it was not yet clear if charges would be laid.
“This doesn’t look good, it’s not in our legal process to threaten someone who has a legal standing to be here … when you use such documents that have no legal basis, you’re breaking the law,” he said.
The incident has triggered memories of 2006, when Chinese businesses in the capital, Honiara, were targeted and burnt in the Chinatown riots, forcing hundreds of Chinese nationals to flee the country.