Pacific power play can kick-start Quad’s grand agenda
Originally published in the Lowy Interpreter, 18 July 2023.
Last December I trekked around some of the most remote corners of the Solomon Islands province of Malaita.
The communities that hosted me — small villages littered with colourful churches, endless children, thatched roofed huts and white sand beaches — were all focused on the latest controversy befalling their island home: the arrival of a Chinese company.
Back in 2020, the island of Malaita was thrust to fame after making a bold pledge to resist all Chinese investment.
The provincial government’s promise was popular.
But it didn’t have enough power to hold back Chinese investors forever.
By the end of 2022, just before the ouster of the island’s anti-Beijing crusader Premier Daniel Suidani, at least one Chinese firm started pursuing projects on the island.
The mining conglomerate was enticed by the promise of gold, titanium and copper rumored to be lurking beneath Malaita’s fertile, mountainous landscape.
Earlier this year, it formalised a prospecting arrangement with a local community, signing a deal with a handful of Chiefs giving the Chinese firm land access, subverting the provincial administration altogether.
Such is the way in the Pacific.
While government buy-in is important, it is often customary landowners who make the call about who can access their resources.
Why would a local community entertain the deal with Chinese suitors?
Simple: there is, currently, no alternative.
These villages are entrenched in poverty.
The lack of economic activity encourages many to sell whatever sits under their feet just to make ends meet.
There are a number of determinants to such acute Pacific poverty, but a widespread lack of electricity access is highest among them.
In the Solomons, most people outside the capital don’t have electricity access.
Those who do use diesel, which is so expensive that it extracts what little wealth these villages create, and funnels it into supply chains that benefit Saudi coffers and Putin’s war machine.
Despite this, there have only been piecemeal attempts by international donors to comprehensively overcome this off-grid energy conundrum.
It is no wonder village chiefs are turning to China for alternative sources of prosperity.
Quad attention in Pacific a watershed
The irony is that this inertia on the ground comes at a time of unique focus on the Pacific Islands region.
Penny Wong’s visits to every Pacific nation has been a diplomatic feat.
But this achievement now needs to be followed through with on-the-ground transformations.
Australia’s efforts have been, welcomingly, complemented by its Quad partners.
Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to PNG was historic. In Port Moresby, India offered a vision of a kind of south-south cooperation that the Pacific Islands had only ever seen from Beijing.
Japan is paying more attention — its aid projects in Honiara sit just feet away from major Chinese investments in the Solomons.
And the US is expanding its Pacific outreach, even hosting every Pacific Islands Forum leader at the White House last year.
Quad already delivering on the ground in Pacific
This focus is already delivering some practical dividends, like the Quad’s shared financing of COVID-19 vaccines in Fiji.
In the 2023 Quad Leaders Summit brochure, the Fiji aid delivery stands out as one the grouping’s major achievements — a case study in the real world application of the new strategic partnership.
There is promise to the Quad’s but its grand ambition is undeniably cluttered.
What began as a security dialogue now has a focus on six additional policy areas: climate, infrastructure, cyber, heath security, critical emerging technologies, and even space.
The scale of this vision risks the partnership becoming ineffectual if real world applications of the Quad’s policy objectives aren’t soon realised.
But it is in the Pacific where there is a real opportunity for the grouping to prove its worth — where the many issues the Quad aspires to lead on all intersect.
Pacific power play ticks Quad policy boxes
In the communities like those I visited in Malaita, off-grid households, schools and clinics are desperate for electricity solutions that aren’t diesel.
The Quad should consider the establishment of a Pacific Electrification Program — a policy that would fund the identification, aggregation, implementation and maintenance of village-scale, off-grid, clean-energy projects in otherwise unelectrified islands of the Pacific.
It should supply these projects with technology manufactured within the Quad grouping, rather than in China.
In doing so, the Quad would be ticking off many of its key focus areas — climate, infrastructure, emerging tech, health security — while delivering meaningful development assistance to the Pacific in a way that counters China’s nascent village-scale outreach.
The Quad needs a practical mission — a project that goes beyond the bromides found in official communiques, and starts executing on the ground.
A Pacific power play might be just what is needed.
Ed Cavanough is CEO at the McKell Institute and author of Divided Isles: Solomon Islands & The China Switch, out in Australia September 19 via Black Inc.
Originally published in the Lowy Interpreter.