EXPLAINER: Is China to blame for Solomon Islands unrest?

FILE - Ships are docked offshore in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, Nov. 24, 2018. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation.(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
Caption
FILE - Ships are docked offshore in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, Nov. 24, 2018. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation.(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Credit: Mark Schiefelbein

Credit: Mark Schiefelbein

The Solomon Islands’ decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing has been blamed for arson and looting in the national capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister’s resignation

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Solomon Islands’ decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing has been blamed for arson and looting in the national capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation.

Australian police, troops and diplomats are helping local police restore peace and order while trying to keep out of the domestic political dispute.

Here's a look at some of the reasons behind the turmoil:

ETHNIC TENSIONS OPEN OLD WOUNDS

The Solomon Islands are famous as a battleground of World War II, the pivotal Battle of Guadalcanal named after the country’ largest island where the restive capital Honiara is located.

It was then known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and became the Solomon Islands before independence in 1978. The South Pacific nation of 700,000 people — mostly Melanesian but also Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese and European — is, like neighboring Australia and New Zealand, a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II the head of state.

A migration of settlers from Malaita, the country’s second biggest island and most populous province, to the economic opportunities on Guadalcanal and Honiara stoked ethnic tensions and eventually unrest.

In the late 1990s, native Guadalcanal islanders, known as Guales, launched a campaign of violence and intimidation to drive the Malaitans off the island. The Malaita Eagle Force militia was formed to protect them in a conflict that led the government to declare a four-month state of emergency in 1999.

Australia and New Zealand rejected the government’s request for help. With the police force ethnically divided, law and order on Guadalcanal collapsed.

In 2000, the Malaita Eagle Force kidnapped Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, a Malaitan, because they did not consider he was doing enough for the Malaitans’ cause.

Ulufa’alu resigned in exchange for his freedom, and the current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare began the first of his four stints as the unstable nation’s leader.

WHAT'S CHINA'S ROLE IN THE CURRENT UNREST?

China has provided another cause for the community to divide, with the government supporting Beijing and the Malatian leaders supporting Taiwan.

The self-ruled island of Taiwan split from mainland China after a civil war in 1949, but Beijing claims it as part of its territory and has persuaded all but 15 countries, most of them small and poor in Africa and Latin America, to switch recognition to the mainland.

But experts say the unrest on the Solomon Islands is driven by the same underlying causes that have undermined the social fabric for decades: inter-island and ethnic tensions, a perceived lack of sharing of resources between Guadalcanal and Malaita, widespread poverty and high youth unemployment.

“Geopolitical tensions have been the spark but not the major driver,” said Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute international policy think tank.

“’I’m sure there is some degree of affection for Taiwan in Malaita, but it’s also another way for Malaitans to express their frustration at the national government,” he added.

Pryke said it was too soon to judge whether the Solomons would benefit financially from their 2019 switch in diplomatic relations to Beijing.

While Beijing’s financial inducements to cut ties with Taiwan have not yet borne fruit, the Solomons had closed its borders throughout the pandemic, which limited Chinese engagement.

Resentment against Chinese business people is longstanding on the Solomons and resulted in much of Honiara’s Chinatown being burned in 2006, and again this week.

“The Chinese communities are vulnerable in the Solomon Islands because they don’t have the traditional support base,” Pryke said. "They don’t have the tribes the families that would would given them some extra degree of cultural isolation from this sort of unrest.”

HOW DID AUSTRALIA BECOME INVOLVED?

Australia and the Solomons signed their first bilateral security treaty in 2017. It provides a legal basis for the rapid deployment of Australian police, troops and associated civilians in the event of a major security challenge.

Australian police were in the air aboard a military transport plane within hours of Sogavare invoking the treaty on Thursday.

Australia had led a force of Pacific Islands police and troops under the Regional Assurance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, from 2003 to 2017. It included 2,300 police and troops from 17 nations, invited by the Solomons’ government. The deployment successfully ended the conflict that killed 200 people.

In the five years of ethic and civil unrest before RAMSI arrived, the Solomons was close to becoming a failed state.

The bilateral treaty acknowledges that underlying causes of the unrest remained and posed development challenges.

“The Solomon Islands will need ongoing support to retain the gains made under RAMSI and to help build long-term stability and enduring growth,” the Australian government said in 2017.

FILE - U.S. Marines, with full battle kits, charge ashore on Guadalcanal Island from a landing barge during the early phase of the U.S. offensive in the Solomon Islands in Aug. 1942, during World War II. (AP Photo, File)
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FILE - U.S. Marines, with full battle kits, charge ashore on Guadalcanal Island from a landing barge during the early phase of the U.S. offensive in the Solomon Islands in Aug. 1942, during World War II. (AP Photo, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - U.S. troops from the 160th Infantry Regiment are seen as they disembark from a landing craft during amphibious training on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, in Mar. 1942. (AP Photo, File)
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FILE - U.S. troops from the 160th Infantry Regiment are seen as they disembark from a landing craft during amphibious training on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, in Mar. 1942. (AP Photo, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - New Zealand troops stand guard over a crowd of more than 200 Solomon Islanders that gathered outside Honiara Magistrates court on the Solomon Islands, Tuesday, April 25, 2006, as Charles Dausebea fronted on the charge of intimidation and managing an unlawful society or assembly. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)
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FILE - New Zealand troops stand guard over a crowd of more than 200 Solomon Islanders that gathered outside Honiara Magistrates court on the Solomon Islands, Tuesday, April 25, 2006, as Charles Dausebea fronted on the charge of intimidation and managing an unlawful society or assembly. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

Credit: Rob Griffith

Credit: Rob Griffith

FILE - An Australian soldier questions a local in Honiara in the Solomon Islands, Thursday, April 20, 2006, as the town is locked down for the 6 p.m. curfew. Australian forces were sent to restore order in the Solomon Islands were on standby for renewed violence after the nation's embattled prime minister was sworn in. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)
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FILE - An Australian soldier questions a local in Honiara in the Solomon Islands, Thursday, April 20, 2006, as the town is locked down for the 6 p.m. curfew. Australian forces were sent to restore order in the Solomon Islands were on standby for renewed violence after the nation's embattled prime minister was sworn in. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

Credit: Rob Griffith

Credit: Rob Griffith

FILE - Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2021. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch it diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the national capital Honiara and for protesters demanding the prime minister resign. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)
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FILE - Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2021. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch it diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the national capital Honiara and for protesters demanding the prime minister resign. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

Credit: Chiang Ying-ying

Credit: Chiang Ying-ying

FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
Caption
FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Credit: Mark Schiefelbein

Credit: Mark Schiefelbein

FILE - Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation. (Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Caption
FILE - Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. The Solomon Islands' decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, has been blamed for arson and looting in the capital Honiara, where protesters are demanding the prime minister's resignation. (Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Credit: Thomas Peter

Credit: Thomas Peter

FILE - In this image made from aerial video, smoke rises from burning buildings during a protest in the capital of Honiara, Solomon Islands, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people took to the streets in the capital for a second day, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues, according to local media reports. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP, File)
Caption
FILE - In this image made from aerial video, smoke rises from burning buildings during a protest in the capital of Honiara, Solomon Islands, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people took to the streets in the capital for a second day, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues, according to local media reports. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - In this image made from aerial video, smoke rises from burning buildings during a protest in the capital of Honiara, Solomon Islands, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people took to the streets in the capital for a second day, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues, according to local media reports. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP, File)
Caption
FILE - In this image made from aerial video, smoke rises from burning buildings during a protest in the capital of Honiara, Solomon Islands, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people took to the streets in the capital for a second day, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues, according to local media reports. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP, File)

Credit: Piringi Charley

Credit: Piringi Charley