I like a good cargo cult. Last April, at the time of the sad demise of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, I wrote at length about how he had his own cargo cult in Vanuatu, The Prince Philip Movement, which worshipped him as a god. (I do hope that they have chosen one of his descendants as a successor by now.)
Cargo cults appear to have emerged as a result of the US Armed Forces dropping what seemed to Pacific Islanders like unimaginable bounties of plenty during the Second World War, the surpluses of which the islanders got to keep and enjoy. The Prince Philip Movement is the offshoot of the John Frum (as in John From America) cargo cult.
Pacific Island nations have, post colonialism, a lot of challenges facing them. There are the threat of rising sea levels, limited resources, petty official corruption, no industries, and few opportunities for economic activity aside from tourism.
As a result, it is not surprising that political leaders in this region turn to a new international form of cargo cultism to guarantee them the bounty which the John Frum of legend used to drop on them.
The security deal between the Solomon Islands and Communist China is the most blatant of this new internationalist cargo cultism manifested so far.
For well over 20 years, Taiwan and Communist China have been competing, with larger and larger chequebooks, for diplomatic recognition as the legitimate Chinese government in the Pacific. Countries in that area have frequently, depending on what they have been offered, changed their official recognition between Taipei and Beijing.
Until Xi’s moves to be more expansionist in recent years, this sort of shuttlecock diplomacy was more a source of bemusement to nearby observers, such as Australia.
But now, with the Solomon Islands, which occupies what is potentially a very strategic corridor in the approaches to Australia, signing a deal with Communist China, it appears that our security may be threatened.
I am not one of those people who argue that we should abandon foreign aid to our neighbours. The goodwill and soft power which accumulates from a well managed and generous foreign aid budget will serve us a whole lot better and more cheaply than having, later on down the track, to commit a whole lot more funds to defence spending.
[Let’s try not to dwell too much on the far greater resources and manifold lives inevitably lost if an actual shooting war breaks out where we could have avoided or minimised the threat by building strong friendships with our neighbours.]
A lot of recriminations have been flung about, possibly with less responsibility than would otherwise have been the case if an election campaign was not underway, about whether the Morrison government has been asleep at the wheel in allowing matters to get to the point where Communist China has been able to saunter in and sign such a deal with a near neighbour.
What little reading I have done on the subject in the past few days suggests that we have been reasonably generous with the Solomon Islands. There is currently an ongoing plan to spend $250 million there in foreign aid in coming years, as well as a rugby league development program. We have also risked the lives of numerous of our police over an extended period in helping to keep the peace in times of civil unrest there.
However I think that perhaps we needed to be a little more observant about our near neighbours, rather than taking them for granted the way that we have. Whilst the world stage is a big arena to strut on, you cannot really get there unless you can perform in the local suburban theatre first. We have not paid close attention to those neighbours, or listened closely to their concerns.
It does not help when former treasurer and subsequent ambassador to the US Joe ‘Shrek’ Hockey describes the Solomon Islands in an interview as corrupt. Nor it is smart when an international relations commentator writes that if soft power fails to stop the China pact, Australia and the US need to invade. Diplomacy is meant to involve the most subtle form of tact, and soft power remains our best tool to prevent the situation from escalating into one where a genuine threat to our security emerges.
Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare appears to be playing a masterful role as high priest of this modern internationalist cargo cult. Communist China will inevitably give him the resources he wants for his nation state, and quite possibly the muscle to help him stay in control. Taiwan will continue to try and bid to keep itself relevant in the area. Now Australia, New Zealand and the USA will also have to pay closer attention, and deliver ‘cargo’ in greater quantities.
However, doing deals with dictatorships have their risks. I doubt very much that Sogavare really would like to see Communist China base warships or planes in his country, or to see the South Pacific militarised. Whether he is able to keep control of the situation to his own and his country’s benefit, remains to be seen.
The lesson for Australia is that we do need to work a lot harder, and spend a lot more, to keep our Pacific neighbours contented and willing to shun PRC overtures in favour of our security interests. There has been talk of PNG allowing a Communist Chinese fishing base in the south part of their country, facing Australia. That would be a much more serious escalation of the diplomatic crisis than we currently face.
Every dollar we spend on foreign aid now is a hundred dollars less than we will have to spend on our defence budget later, and a thousand dollars less than we would lose if a war transpired.