Last December, I trekked around some of the most remote corners of the Solomon Islands province of Malaita. The communities that hosted me – small villages littered with colourful churches, countless children, thatched-roof huts and white sand beaches – were all focused on the latest controversy befalling their island home: the arrival of a Chinese mining company.
Back in 2020, the island of Malaita was thrust to fame after making a bold pledge to resist all Chinese investment. The provincial government’s promise was popular. But the island didn’t have enough power to hold back Chinese investors forever. By the end of 2022, just before the ouster of its anti-Beijing crusader Premier Daniel Suidani, at least one Chinese firm had started pursuing projects on Malaita. The conglomerate was enticed by the promise of minerals rumoured to be lurking beneath Malaita’s fertile, mountainous landscape.
Earlier this year, the company formalised a prospecting arrangement with a local community, signing a deal with a handful of chiefs, giving the Chinese firm land access and subverting the provincial administration altogether.
Such is the way in the Pacific.
While government buy-in is important, it’s often customary for landowners to decide access to their resources. But why would a local community entertain the deal with Chinese suitors? Simple: there are, currently, few alternatives. These villages are entrenched in poverty. The lack of economic activity encourages many to sell whatever sits under their feet just to make ends meet. There are a number of determinants to such acute Pacific poverty, but the lack of electricity access is high among them.
In the Solomons, most people outside the capital don’t have power. Those who do, rely on diesel, which is so expensive that it extracts what little wealth these villages create, and funnels it into supply chains that ultimately line Saudi coffers and Putin’s war machine. Despite this, there have only been piecemeal attempts by international donors to comprehensively overcome this off-grid energy conundrum. It is no wonder village chiefs are turning to China for alternative sources of prosperity.
This inertia on the ground comes at a time of unique focus on the Pacific Islands. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visits to every Pacific nation since taking office in March last year have been a diplomatic feat.
Australia’s efforts have been, welcomingly, complemented by its Quad partners – India, the United States and Japan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2023 visit to Papua New Guinea was historic. In Port Moresby, India offered a vision of a kind of south-south cooperation that the Pacific Islands had only ever seen from Beijing. Japan is paying more attention, too – its aid projects in Honiara sit just feet away from major Chinese investments in the Solomons. And the United States is expanding its Pacific outreach, hosting every Pacific Islands Forum leader at the White House last year.
This focus is already delivering practical dividends, such as the Quad’s shared financing of Covid-19 vaccines in Fiji. In the 2023 Quad Leaders’ Summit brochure, the Fiji aid delivery stands out as one of the few case studies displaying on-the-ground application of the new strategic partnership. The Quad shows promise, but its grand ambition is cluttered.
What began as a security dialogue now has six focus areas: climate, infrastructure, cyber, heath security, critical emerging technologies, and even space. The scale of this vision risks the partnership becoming ineffectual if real-world outcomes of the Quad’s policy objectives aren’t soon realised. It is in the Pacific where the many issues on which the Quad aspires to collaborate all intersect, and where the grouping can begin to prove its worth.
In the communities like those I visited in Malaita, off-grid households, schools and clinics are desperate for electricity solutions that aren’t diesel. The Quad should consider the establishment of a Pacific Electrification Program – a policy that would fund the identification, aggregation, implementation and maintenance of village-scale, off-grid, clean-energy projects in otherwise unelectrified islands of the Pacific.
It should supply these projects with technology manufactured within the Quad grouping, rather than in China. In doing so, the Quad would be ticking off many of its key focus areas – climate, infrastructure, emerging tech, health security – while delivering meaningful development assistance to the Pacific in a way that counters China’s nascent village-scale outreach. It would also be learning from some of the mistakes made with the design of the Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership – a program with a heavy focus on grid extension, rather than off-grid projects. Grid extension does matter, but it ignores the growing needs in isolated villages, whose populations and development challenges are growing near exponentially.
The Quad needs a practical mission – a project that goes beyond the bromides found in official communiqués and that starts executing on the ground. A Pacific power play might be just what is needed.
The author’s trip included research for his forthcoming book: Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch