The warning signs were there, but Australia ruined the opportunity to take on the Solomon Islands. As Beijing moves, that’s how we got so wrong.
Almost two decades ago, a friend of mine accompanied the Australian-led Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission.
While there he witnessed a briefing to locals from a DFAT official accompanied by an armed Australian soldier.
The official explained that the mission’s purpose was to restore law and order in the Solomons and concluded by asking locals if they had any questions.
Yes, replied one of the locals, staring at the soldier’s machine gun. Could he please shoot the crocodile that ate all their dogs?
That one exchange alone tells you everything you need to know Australia’s relationship with the Solomon Islands. Suffice it to say we weren’t there to shoot crocodiles.
Now we were only there to restore law and order. Yes, the Australian mission was to establish stability and rebuild institutions destroyed by fighting and unrest – assuming they were present in the first place – but it wasn’t just so everyone could hold hands and sing. kumbayah. It was because our national security depended on it.
Not that we even noticed at the time. Australia had little interest being sucked into Solomon’s quagmire until the Americans – still faltering since 9/11 – pointed out that having a violent failed state on our doorstep wasn’t exactly a world-class strategic positioning.
Australia should not have been reminded of this. Six decades earlier, in 1942, the Solomons were the site of the first Allied offensive against the Japanese invading forces, who were trying to isolate Australia from the United States by conquering the main island of Guadalcanal.
Yet even the official Royal Australian Navy (RAN) story of this key event in World War II alludes to our national amnesia.
“While most Australians are familiar with the determined resistance and subsequent counter-offensive of Australian soldiers along the Kokoda Track, the simultaneous actions of Australian sailors at Guadalcanal are often forgotten, but are perhaps just as important for those wishing to better understand the fundamentals. defense of Australia, ”writes military historian Dr Gregory P Gilbert on the RAN website.
“After all, as an island nation, the defense of our maritime communications has always been vital.”
Specifically, as anyone with a piece of string would understand, our maritime communications with the United States, then as now, our strongest and most important strategic partner.
Yet even after this existential threat to our nation in 1942, and even in the aftermath of the most blatant attack on American soil in 2001, we still needed to remember it less than two years later, when George W. Bush told our government that Solomon’s riots were a fire that we probably shouldn’t let burn.
Thus was born in 2003 the RAMSI mission. Exactly a decade later it entered a “transitional” phase, and four years later it ended, on June 30, 2017.
“Law and order have been restored, national institutions have been rebuilt and the economy of the Solomon Islands has been reformed,” reads the official account on the RAMSI website, a website that may soon need to be updated.
Ironically, given its genesis, RAMSI’s Bush affirmation of “Mission Accomplished” now seems a bit premature. With the Solomons is now in the process of becoming a client state of China the reform we are achieving does not appear to be the one we spent $ 2.6 billion on.
So how the hell did we drop a couple of bills just to drop a bowling ball on our big toe?
Well, given that what we can only euphemistically call our “strategy” is clearly detached from reality, we might as well turn to the world of fantasy. And so the famous quote from JRR Tolkien immediately came to mind The Lord of the Rings – widely regarded as a World War II allegory: “Some things that shouldn’t have been forgotten have been lost.”
Australia has forgotten the Solomons because we have lost the corporate memory. There has been so much leadership change, so much abandonment at the highest levels of government, that the main focus of successive administrations has been politics, not politics and certainly not foreign policy.
With all the past prime ministers of the past 15 years expelled in their first term and the inevitable ministerial exodus that accompanies it, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there was simply no one left to remember and that some things that shouldn’t have been forgotten were lost.
Good governance takes experience, and experience takes time. This should be a statement of the obviously obvious, but it is a truth that both major parties sabotaged internally as voters watched in horror.
In this light, it seems ironic that we were never called upon to educate the Solomon Islands in the first place about political stability. The only difference is that our strong institutions and conventions have saved us from such chaos.
But we also screwed up: we blew up our leaders and ruined our alliances and allowed a small country entirely within our sphere of influence to be fully adopted by China, despite one of the most interventionist foreign policy exercises. and expensive peacetime that our modest nation has ever ever launched.
What is the purpose of RAMSI, what is the purpose of DFAT and what is the purpose of our foreign intelligence service ASIS if our political leadership will simply take all that work, all those resources and all that knowledge and just piss it off the winds ignorance.
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Originally published as The deal with the Solomon Islands shows how Australia has wasted its chances