For those who know Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, there are a few descriptions that come up regularly.
There’s “unpredictable” and “emotional”.
“A natural autocrat” is another, while others call him a “deft political operator”.
And yesterday, some of these descriptions rang true as he launched an extraordinary verbal assault on Australia, accusing the federal government of hypocrisy over its complaints about secrecy surrounding Solomon Islands’ security pact with China.
It is a pact that has effectively lit a firework under the Australian election campaign, sparking fears of a potential Chinese military base in Solomon Islands.
Yet, according to the Pacific experts, despite yesterday’s verbal assault, the move to sign the pact with China has little to do with what the Australian government has or hasn’t done in the Pacific, or what the Labor Party plans to do if it wins the upcoming federal election.
Experts say, rather, it is all part of Mr Sogavare’s plan.
They say it’s a plan to hold onto power at all costs, pit regional players against each other and create a political wedge to get more for Solomon Islands.
“I’d say there’s a big part of him that genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing for his country,” Lowy Institute Pacific Islands program director Jonathan Pryke told the ABC.
“He likes to be in charge. He’s unpredictable. But he’s also a deft political operator. And I’d say he’d think he’s in the driver’s seat with this pact, he’d think he’s still the boss.
“He’s in the middle of two big powers — and really, he’s trying to take advantage of that situation.”
The unpredictable politician
Mannaseh Sogavare is a political journeyman.
The 67-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist from the Choiseul region in the far north-west of Solomon Islands is in his fourth stint as Prime Minister over a more than two-decade political career.
And throughout those stints he’s had a complicated relationship with Australia, and Australia’s presence in the country.
For former Solomon Islands high commissioner James Batley, one event sums up Mr Sogavare’s malleability — and unpredictability — as a politician.
Mr Batley was the leader of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2004 to 2006 — a 14-year peacekeeping mission led by Australia to quell ethnic violence, known as “The Tensions”.
After helping to bring relative peace, RAMSI officially left the country in 2017.
Mr Batley, who has known Mr Sogavare for more than two decades, said he witnessed “emotional” outbursts from the Prime Minister — then in his second stint — who aggressively opposed the RAMSI intervention.
“Then we all went back to Honiara [Solomon Islands capital] for the end of RAMSI events and he was literally in tears, saying RAMSI was a ‘blessing from god’, and said ‘thank you Australia and RAMSI for saving the country’,” he said.
“Then I saw him in tears again at another forum meeting, and again another meeting I saw — it was quite a performance.”
For Mr Batley, now a distinguished policy fellow at the Australian National University’s school of Asia Pacific affairs, last week’s signing of the security pact with China came as no surprise.
“From the China point of view, they’ve been angling for something like this in the region for years.
“And for the Solomon Islands point of view, I also wasn’t surprised as it plays into this idea that ‘we’re friends to all and enemies to none’, we’re able to leverage this geo-strategic competition to our advantage.
“And in many ways, Sogavare is uniquely susceptible to that line of thinking — that you should balance your relationships and don’t depend on one power.
“But I think he’s absolutely underestimated the domestic consequences of this decision. It has badly damaged trust with Australia.”
China, Solomon Islands and Sogavare
The latest controversy is nothing new for Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister.
In fact, those that know and study him say he thrives in conflict.
And the current situation in Solomon Islands can be traced back to a controversial event — his re-election in 2019 for his fourth stint as PM.
The gradual shift towards last week’s pact started in late 2019, when, after months of speculation, Mr Sogavare announced the country would switch its political allegiances from Taiwan to China.
“The Switch” as it is known in Honiara, was announced amid revelations of “dollar diplomacy”, and accusations of self-interest surrounding Mr Sogavare and his allies.
Violence kicked off again in November last year, with rioters calling for Mr Sogavare to stand down.
The rioters torched Honiara’s Chinatown, triggering Australia to once-again deploy a peacekeeping force.
Mr Sogavare later stared down the dissenters, surviving a no-confidence motion.
Honiara-born Solomon Islands politics academic Joseph Foukona, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has been following Mr Sogavare’s career since its beginning.
He said he rose to power — and maintains power — in a broader atmosphere of “conflict and tension” and the latest move with China was no different.
“And I’d say a lot of his moves [at the moment] are designed to keep himself in power,” he said.
“But I’d say also this decision to sign the pact with China is fundamentally driven by domestic issues.”
‘The Chinese way’
According to Dr Foukona, it is hard to gauge the general reaction to the pact and whether it will impact Mr Sogavare domestically.
He said some Solomon Islanders were taking a wait and see approach to the pact and China’s presence.
However, he said there was nervousness, with concerns about the “Chinese police culture” coming into the country and Beijing’s obvious disdain for democracy.
Local media say the Prime Minister has recently beefed up security around parliament as well and his personal security, and rarely — if ever — conducts media conferences.
Griffith University Pacific Hub project lead Tess Newton Cain said the “Chinese way” suited the way Mr Sogavare did things.
She said this was shown when he shut down Facebook in 2021, increased the power of the executive and made moves to back the “gradual chipping away” of the democratic process in Solomon Islands, such as his move to delay its upcoming election.
“There are many facets in the way China operates that appeal to Pacific politicians, I hear this a lot.
“They say ‘we never get anything done’. In China, they get things done.”
What’s next for Sogavare?
Solomon Islands is set for a general election late next year.
However, Sogavare’s government has been pushing to delay the elections until after the Pacific Games, which it is scheduled to host in November 2023.
The election is critical in an Australian context, as the Solomon Islands opposition party has vowed to tear up the security pact with China if it were to gain power.
Veteran Honiara-based freelance journalist Dorothy Wickham agreed with Dr Foukona that it was hard to read the reaction in Solomon Islands, particularly with about 80 per cent of the population living outside the capital.
However, she said there was no doubt it would continue to be debated in the country — even if some had already lost interest.
“Others say, ‘well if China can give us something better, well, let’s go with China — we’re a sovereign country, we can do what we like’.
“And then there’s people saying we should be careful, we’ve seen what China has done around the world, and Solomon Islands will be no different. And others are dead against it.
“But people are yet to see anything really negative out of China’s aid so far.
“They built the stadium here, they can see things being built fast, they’ve just announced they’re going to work on the hospital — everyone here wants a hospital.”
And as for his future as Prime Minister? According to Ms Wickham that one’s “hard to tell”.
“There’s a lot of people out there who really don’t like him,” she said.
“But he’s got a small group of politicians around him who are protecting him.
“But ones thing’s for certain: Solomon Islanders are at the point now when they’re not shocked at anything he does!”