The small Pacific archipelago, so called because it was thought to be home to King Solomon's mines, actually lacks everything: hospitals, infrastructure, airports. China, which has offered to bring a certain degree of development, is welcomed as a liberator. But taking sides is not the solution, comments Monsignor Luciano Capelli to AsiaNews.
Gizo (AsiaNews) - China's military presence on the Solomon Islands will be maintained under the supervision of local authorities, announced the ambassador of the Solomon Islands in Australia yesterday. Ambassador Robert Sisilo wanted to reassure Western public opinion that the Chinese security forces, even when deployed, will not use the same repressive techniques seen in Hong Kong. However, these reassurances have failed to convince Australia and New Zealand who have opposed the security pact signed in recent weeks between Honiara and Beijing.
China's intervention was requested after the Solomon Islands police force struggled to contain anti-government riots in the capital's Chinatown in November.
However this is not the first time that an external military force has been deployed in the small archipelago, Bishop Luciano Capelli of Gizo tells AsiaNews: "I've been here for 23 years, since shortly after the ethnic clashes between the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita began. In 2003, the Regional Assistance Mission for Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an Australian-led multinational force, was asked to intervene, "which in 13 years has restored peace and trained the local police," the bishop continues.
Then in November 2021, tensions erupted again: the inhabitants of the island of Malaita had protested against the government led by Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare for its decision to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establish them with China.
"As the Solomon Islands Church Association we had made an appeal for dialogue," the bishop continues. "But the current premier completely ignored it and at first called on Australia to restore order. While now he makes these agreements with China whose details have not been disclosed."
It is not clear what percentage of the population is against or in favor of these new security agreements. The Churches, says Msgr. Capelli, are now "silent."
However, it is not difficult to understand why the current government has turned towards China. Msgr. Capelli himself is called the "flying bishop" because he travels around the diocese by seaplane: "The population, just over 700,000 inhabitants, lives isolated on 1,000 islands that are difficult to reach with minimal means and materials for subsistence. In order to go to the missionary stations, I had to get my seaplane license; then, in order to bring food to our schools, I had to buy two small boats because, in the absence of piers, we first have to unload the goods on a small boat and then bring them to shore. Everything is missing.
The Bishop of Gizo continues to explain the local situation: "Guadalcanal, for example, the largest island, does not have a regional hospital, but only the national one where all the patients sent from other regions arrive".
As a direct result, "when any 'China' comes to build us a hospital, it will always be welcomed as a liberator". What is certian is that there will be debts, because Honiara will be asked to pay, it is just not known when: "In the 23 years that I have been here I have not seen any interest on the part of the United States, which has not even de-mined an airport runway, half of it is still unusable because of their bombs dropped against the Japanese during World War II," comments Msgr. Capelli. "We've already had a conflict between great powers here 77 years ago and we don't want another one." Especially looking at what is happening in Ukraine.
"We Salesians are familiar with the Chinese regime," the Don Bosco religious continues further. "Many still remember the torture and decades of forced labor. We all see the state of the Church there. But we also know that China is building infrastructure never seen here for the 2023 Pacific Games, for example."
At the moment, the Honiara government says it has not authorized the construction of a Chinese military base, but it cannot be ruled out that it could happen in the future. Australia and New Zealand, the traditional allies, feel threatened in what they have always considered their "backyard."
According to the bishop, however, the solution is not to choose sides. "Are we trying to walk into a new trap where two or more superpowers will again drop bombs on each other in Henderson or Visale?" wonders Msgr. Capelli. "We are a peace-loving people. Let's eliminate corruption and our local quarrels and get the country's development projects off the ground without money going into the pockets of individuals. Can't we make it on our own if we get rid of corruption and work hard as a team? Without delegating our right to self-defense to anyone, especially to a country that doesn't seem to respect democracy."
It's an uphill road, he admits, but as a good Salesian, Msgr. Capelli believes in the value of education and hard work: "There is hard work to be done, but we will maintain our freedom from pressure, our sovereignty and dignity as a small nation that is proud of itself."