The bright lights of a $120 million stadium complex built by China tower over the Solomon Islands capital. Below, the national hospital is so overwhelmed its patients are being treated with intravenous drips inside a tent in the car park.
Just three hours by plane from Brisbane, downtown Honiara is the centre of a country beset by contradictions, fast money and a growing power struggle. Now it finds itself on the next frontier of China’s political, economic and military ambitions.
“China is beautifying the country,” says 27-year-old Junita Javi as she lines up outside Honiara’s new national stadium with her four kids. “They give us more inspiration.”
“One game is inside the stadium,” he says. “But there is a bigger game going on as well. It’s between the big powers China, Australia, and the United States.”
Australian officials were shocked last year by the sudden acceleration of a security deal between Solomon Islands and China, but The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes can reveal fresh allegations of intimidation in the Pacific as Beijing’s influence grows to encompass everything from infrastructure to media, mining, policing and healthcare in one of Australia’s closest neighbours.
“There are lots of Solomon Islanders who think ‘why do we have a flashy, huge-looking national stadium when we have a hospital next door that is collapsing?’” says Kabutaulaka.
Beneath the glistening new stadium, tales of exploitation are rife in villages that believe they have been caught between the ambitions of the Solomon Islands government and Chinese state-backed investment with little oversight.
In 2018, Chinese company Win Win Mining said it was confident it had found an ore reserve containing 200,000 ounces of gold in Turarana, two hours outside Honiara, a haul that would be worth more than $590 million in today’s gold prices.
Between 2008 and 2022, Australia contributed $3.2 billion in aid to Solomon Islands according to the Lowy Institute. But there is little evidence of that on the streets of Honiara, where Chinese branding covers everything from the national stadium to the new cardiac hospital wing, to new police vehicles.
The deputy leader of the national opposition, Peter Kenilorea jnr, claimed in 2020 that government MPs were offered bribes of more than $200,000 to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. These allegations were denied by the government. Then in 2021, Sogavare survived a no-confidence motion after riots broke out in Honiara fuelled by COVID-19 isolation and concerns over the government’s shift from Taiwan.
Panuelo says he has been the target of Chinese government hostility since he opposed Beijing’s Pacific-wide economic and security deal in May 2022. Chinese officials first followed him overseas at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva in September that year.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected Panuelo’s claims as groundless smears. “They are completely inconsistent with the facts,” the ministry said.
Panuelo, like many Pacific Island leaders, has also tried to turn the heightened geopolitical interest in the Pacific to his advantage. In March, he wrote a letter to state governors and other Pacific leaders detailing his concerns about China’s actions.
China has tipped in more than $120 million to the Games, Australia has contributed $17 million, while the US has parked its USNS Mercy in Honiara harbour, a ship that would be the eighth-largest hospital in America if it was on land.
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