More than meets the eye? The ‘complicated’ Pacific PM who hugged Albanese

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was embraced on Wednesday by the leader of the Solomon Islands before they even sat down for their first meeting.

After years of growing tension between the two nations, that might have seemed like one of the quickest rapprochements in diplomatic history.

But Manasseh Sogavare, now in power for his fourth non-consecutive term, is a complicated figure, who has been accused before of making a diplomatic deal only to act as if it never happened.

“Mercurial,” said one diplomat when asked to sum up Mr Sogavare’s style.

A colleague recalled being left baffled after Mr Sogavare disclosed having recently taken advice from the country’s former ​prime minister, Solomon Mamaloni.

Mr Mamaloni had died more than a decade earlier, something his former deputy did not seem to have forgotten.

At the Pacific Island Forum in Suva on Wednesday, Mr Sogavare told Mr Albanese he needed a hug and held out his arms in greeting.

It seemed to defuse the tension from a meeting laden with expectations after the Solomons’ leader signed a security pact with China.

That deal became a major issue in the recent election campaign, and was framed by Labor as a failure of engagement by the Coalition.

Red lines, strained ties

The deal with Beijing threatens to upend already-fractious security in the region and prompted the Pentagon to warn it would respond in kind if the deal were used to establish a permanent Chinese military base.

Mr Albanese has sought an assurance from his counterpart that a base would never be built.

But the last time Mr Sogavare gave a world leader an undertaking on China their relationship very soon soured.

Then-US vice president Mike Pence called Mr Sogavare in 2019 to ask about a review of the country’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, something the new PM insisted was being conducted independently of him with no outcome in mind.

After the call Mr Sogavare wrote to tell Mr Pence he felt “favourably disposed” to America’s request to delay any decision to switch its alliances toward Beijing.

Washington said Mr Sogavare agreed not to drop Taiwan for China at least until late that year, when he and the vice president could meet in New York to talk things over.

When Mr Sogavare announced a new diplomatic alliance with Beijing only a few months later the vice president was said to be furious.

Unusually the White House announced the meeting had been scrapped and warned of “consequences” while copies of letters written by Mr Sogavare soon wound up in the media.

Peter Kenilorea Jr chairs the Solomon Islands Parliament’s foreign relations committee and said anger was palpable in Washington when he visited in an attempt to contain the fallout.

“They were so disappointed,” the opposition MP recalls of his meetings with Republican leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio. “It seemed like as soon as he hung up on the receiver, they had switched.”

But one source who closely observed Mr Sogavare’s most recent campaign for the prime ministership said it was not ideology but simple politics that pushed him closer to China.

He needed to win votes of MPs from Guadalcanal – a politically critical province home to an illegal logging trade with China.

“[They] made the price of their support the transfer of recognition from Taiwan to China,” the source said.

Anthony Albanese was confident ahead of his meeting with the Solomon Islands PM in Fiji. Photo: AAP

Complicated history

Mr Sogavare has been in diplomatic stand-offs with Australia before his recent tension with Scott Morrison over the China security pact.

In 2006 the AFP arrested a man for sex crimes who had been tapped by Mr Sogavare to become attorney-general in an overseas operation that remains shrouded in controversy.

And Mr Sogavare once expelled Australia’s High Commissioner for alleged “meddling” in sovereign matters.

“It’s always baffled me,” says Mr Kenilorea, referring to Mr Sogavare’s anti-Australian sentiments.

“The feelings have been there for a while.”

Before the leaders embraced in Fiji on Wednesday, Mr Albanese had confidently predicted that the relationship was about to improve.

Mr Kenilorea, a critic of Mr Sogavare’s China security deal and a recent proposal to defer the country’s next elections a year, says things could be less certain than that.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he would agree with whatever has been said but then do the opposite,” he said.

Views have been divided on whether relations with the Solomon Islands could possibly improve or if the recent move into China’s security orbit would spoil long-standing ties. The conclusions are often bound up in differing assumptions about what China is seeking to achieve in the South Pacific.

For now the relationship is at an awkward juncture.

Australia is the country’s biggest donor of development assistance and, officially, its preferred security partner.

That status continues despite the security deal with Beijing proceeding against Australian objections and despite Mr Sogavare asking Beijing last week to permanently deploy a police force to the country.

A request for an interview sent to one of Mr Sogavare’s advisers did not receive a response.

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