Five things to know about Solomon Islands

The tiny Pacific state of Solomon Islands will be thrust into the international spotlight this week, when citizens vote in national elections with geopolitical consequences.

Incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare tore up diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2019, and has pledged to further embrace China if he is re-elected.

Here are five things you should know about the Pacific’s “Hapi Isles”, a nation of about 720,000 people spread across 900 volcanic islands and coral atolls in the South Pacific.

– Diplomatic battleground –

For almost 40 years after declaring independence, Solomon Islands maintained close diplomatic ties with Taiwan and spurned China’s advances.

But Sogavare tipped this on its head in 2019, when he abruptly walked away from Taiwan and pledged his support for Beijing’s “One China” principle.

A murky security pact between China and Solomon Islands followed in 2022, spurning traditional security partners Australia and the United States.

Washington and Canberra fear China may use the pact as a springboard to one day establish a permanent military presence in the South Pacific.

Solomon Islands has a clear strategic importance.

It is close to busy Pacific shipping routes, and it offers a jumping-off point to disrupt sea lanes and air space connecting America with its allies in Southeast Asia.

Further upping the stakes, Sogavare’s main challengers have signalled a willingness to curtail the contentious China agreement.

– Mythical wealth –

Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana stumbled across what would become Solomon Islands during an expedition in 1568.

The chance discovery of gold flakes in a riverbed fuelled a belief that he had, in fact, found the mythical source of King Solomon’s biblical wealth.

But the explorer’s hope was misplaced.

Solomon Islands is home to a small gold mine on the main island of Guadalcanal, but its main money makers today are raw logs and fish.

And despite early dreams of untapped riches, it remains one of the least developed nations in the world.

– Fit for a president –

The United States launched a major offensive to dislodge occupying Japanese troops from Solomon Islands at the height of World War II.

A young John F. Kennedy, then a lieutenant in the American Navy, was lurking off the coast in a patrol boat when a Japanese destroyer rammed it.

In a story now firmly entrenched in US military folklore, the future president helped his injured crewmates swim to safety — using an etched coconut to spread the news of their survival.

The speck of sand where they sheltered has since been dubbed Kennedy Island, and bears a timeworn shrine to JFK.

– ‘The Tensions’ –

Between 1998 and 2003, Solomon Islands was wracked by a spiralling ethnic conflict now known as ‘The Tensions’.

Armed political groups from the neighbouring islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita fought a series of running skirmishes as they battled for control in the capital Honiara.

By the time an international peacekeeping force arrived to quell the conflict in 2003, Solomon Islands faced bankruptcy and the near-total collapse of law and order.

An international peacekeeping team would be despatched to get the nation back on its feet, staying until 2017.

– Evolutionary proving ground –

The dense, untouched rainforests that blanket Solomon Islands hide a stunning array of bird life found nowhere else on the planet.

Famed Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr was drawn to study these specimens in the early 1920s, unravelling how the myriad different species were formed.

His observations would help to settle, once and for all, Charles Darwin’s seminal theory of evolution.

AFP

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