Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pro-China former diplomat is new Solomon Islands prime minister

Solomon Islands’ newly elected Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele speaks during a press conference outside Parliament House in Honiara on May 2, 2024.
Solomon Islands’ newly elected Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele speaks during a press conference outside Parliament House in Honiara on May 2, 2024.

Jeremiah Manele, a former foreign minister and career diplomat, was elected the Solomon Islands’ new prime minister Thursday, winning 31 out of 49 votes from the newly elected National Parliament.

Some analysts say the result means the Solomon Islands under the new government will likely maintain its pro-China foreign policy agenda while adopting a less confrontational approach to handle its relationship with Western democracies, including Australia, the United States and New Zealand.

“Manele is largely going to provide continuity on foreign policy and I think Beijing will welcome that as it indicates that their robust relationship with the Solomon Islands will continue,” Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, told VOA by phone.

Thursday’s result comes after last month’s parliamentary election delivered no clear winner. The incumbent government previously led by former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare won 15 seats, losing more than half of the seats it held going into the poll.

After failing to secure the 26 seats required to form a new government, the two main opposition parties struck a coalition deal Saturday. Ultimately, they nominated former opposition leader Matthew Wale to run in Thursday’s prime ministerial election, in which he eventually won 18 votes.

Sogavare said Monday he would not run for prime minister, claiming he had been experiencing pressure from the United States and other Western allies after switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. He also criticized the media for vilifying him and his family.

Some experts say Sogavare’s decision to withdraw was a result of the ruling coalition’s heavy loss in the parliamentary election.

“To secure the best chance of the coalition maintaining government, a change of leadership was required,” Meg Keen, director of the Pacific Islands Program at Lowy Institute in Australia, said.

Thursday’s election was closely followed internationally as competition increases among major powers, including China and the United States, for influence in the Pacific region in recent years. It is also the first election since Sogavare signed a controversial security deal with China in 2022 that raised alarm among Western countries and opposition forces in the Solomon Islands.

An experienced politician

Some experts say Manele, who served as foreign minister in Sogavare’s administration, is an experienced politician who played an important role during the Solomon Islands’ efforts to deepen diplomatic relations with China in recent years.

“Manele played a role in negotiating the change of recognition to China and the security deal with China, he is on the record saying close relations with China will bring development dividends,” Keen in Australia told VOA in a written response.

She said Manele will likely uphold Sogavare’s signature foreign policy agenda, the “Look North” policy, but adopt a more measured approach to engage with Western countries, given his background as a diplomat for the Pacific Island nation.

“He will be more measured than Sogavare and a less fiery leader,” she added.

Despite his tendency to be less confrontational toward Western countries, some analysts warn that Manele could pose a greater threat to regional security than his predecessor.

While Manele “won’t push the West’s buttons like Sogavare does,” Cleo Paskal, a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies, told VOA in a written response, “if Manele continues with his pro-PRC bent, he is much more dangerous to security in the region because he will feed fodder to those who want to say everything is fine while he continues the same destructive policies as Sogavare.”

Sogavare, during his five-year tenure as prime minister, embraced a pro-China foreign policy agenda that saw the Pacific Island nation sign a series of security-related agreements with Beijing. Meanwhile, he had repeatedly praised China’s political system and criticized democracy as a cause of “moral decay.”

While Sogavare fails to become the first politician to win two consecutive terms as prime minister in the country’s short democratic history, some experts say he will remain a formidable political force there.

“Manele and Sogavare worked very closely in the previous government, so it would be a bit surprising to think that Manele wouldn’t look to Sogavare for guidance and input,” Tess Newton Cain, an expert on Pacific affairs at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, told VOA by phone.

Regional and geopolitical implications

Novak said China will try to maintain a close relationship with the new Solomon Islands government, but it remains to be seen how much impact Chinese aid and development can have on improving the situation, including economy and health care.

“There’s a broader question of how impactful Chinese development aid has been on improving the lives of Solomon Islanders and I think there is a lot of skepticism about that,” he told VOA.

On the other hand, Novak said he thinks it is important for Western countries, especially the United States, to maintain and keep expanding their engagement with the Solomon Islands.

“They need to be proactive in the relationship and this is especially true for the United States,” he said, adding that foreign aid for development should be prioritized.

While Manele will try to stabilize the relationship with the West amid efforts to maintain close ties with China, Keen told VOA that geopolitical competition between major powers will “remain intense” in the Solomon Islands.

VOA's Jessica Stone contributed reporting from Washington.