China accused of using aid to influence Solomons’ political order

The head of Transparency Solomon Islands and the leader of the Independent Group in parliament claim China is purposefully manipulating Solomon Islands’ political order using aid money – but the prime minister disagrees.

Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of the Independent Group, told RNZ Pacific China aid through the Rural Sustainable Development Program (RSDP) was being used to “sway people to join government from the opposition” so members could access the money.

Kenilorea said the RSDP was subject to abuse because the Ministry of Rural Development – which was part of the executive government – implemented the projects on China’s behalf.

“It’s unfair on constituencies because it seems like it’s discretionary on the ministry which is part of the executive [government],” he said.

“They’re looking to sway people to join government before they can access that funding.

“I know that some of my colleagues who are in the opposition haven’t even gotten a cent from that new funding from the ministry.”

Kenilorea said he believed both China and the government were responsible for the political manipulation.

“It’s the same government pretty much, which is the same government that went into diplomatic relations with China; so, I think in terms of China’s foothold they would like those who are like-minded to still be in government.”

Transparency Solomon Islands chief executive Ruth Liloqula agreed with Kenilorea that the situation was driving Members of Parliament to abandon the political party banner or independent status, which they campaigned under in the April election, to join the pro-China government.

Liloqula said the application process for the RSDP was murky but it involved MPs applying through the Chinese Embassy.

“Beijing makes the decision about which projects could be funded and most of those belong to Members of Parliament of the executive government.”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele rubbished Kenilorea’s claim.

“Anywhere in the world after the elections you tend to find Members of Parliament who would like to join, who would like to be in the government side, because once they are in the government side then they will be in a position to influence policy and the budget,” he told RNZ.

“The support by China to the Ministry of Rural Development – it is for all, the whole 50 constituencies and there is a process in place for the all 50 constituencies to apply and access that funding, so it’s not true that the government is using that to pull members.”

In a letter seen by RNZ Pacific on 20 April 2023, Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Rural Development put a call out for MPs to apply for the RSDP.

The selection criteria said: “Submission does not automatically qualify the constituency for funding” and the selection “shall be based on the merit of proposals”.

Kenilorea said the Chinese Embassy said it would monitor the implementation of his project if he was successful in his application.

“This is where I said, ‘na, na, this is a funding straight from Beijing; you’re a different country; you cannot monitor a Member of Parliament from another country in terms of implementation of funds that you gave’.”

Up until last year, China was contributing to the widely criticised Constituency Development Fund (CDF) but this was replaced by the RSDP, which has a similar purpose of supporting rural development initiatives.

The CDF – which still runs but is now only funded by the Solomon Islands – works by Members of Parliament getting broad authority to allocate money. MPs have indirect control over CDF funds in that they personally appoint the Constituency Development Officers who control and manage the projects.

In some cases, MPs have been accused of using the fund for personal enrichment.

Bilateral aid from other countries – including from the New Zealand High Commission in Honiara – works by community members applying directly for aid projects, bypassing MPs altogether.

Kenilorea said he rejected the RSDP application and instead asked for his community to be able to apply directly to the Chinese Embassy, taking him out of the equation, which he said they did.

He said he did not know why the Chinese Embassy did not just allow the community to apply for the project funding directly, rather than outsourcing implementation to a ministry of the Solomon Islands Government.

Liloqula said if the money from the RSDP was not at play “politicians would have had a level playing field to fight it out on the formation of government”.

She said there needed to be more transparency over China’s aid programmes.

“I think here in the Solomon Islands we should treat every donor the same – this does not happen,” she said.

“We should ask them the same questions; it happens to other donors and other people, but it does not happen to China.”

Massey University Associate Professor Anna Powles said there was “certainly concern” about how the RDSP was being used.

“It may be contributing to both elite capture but also to shaping development outcomes and political outcomes.”

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters stands with leader of the Independent Group Peter Kenilorea Jr

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, when asked how concerned he was about China’s influence when he was in Honiara on Wednesday, said he did not come to the Solomon Islands to talk about China.

“We’ve stuck to our ability to be a sound, worthy good partner of the Pacific and focused on that alone.”

RNZ Pacific approached the Chinese Embassy in the Solomon Islands for comment, including asking if the Chinese Embassy is involved in the RSDP approval process; why China stopped contributing towards the CDF; and if China is manipulating the Solomon Islands’ political order.

Hearts and minds

Last month, Kenilorea took a picture of two billboards in Honiara promoting China’s involvement in the CDF and the RSDP.

This is despite China no longer contributing to the CDF.

“They knew full well that they didn’t contribute to CDF already,” Kenilorea said. “The other one, the Rural Sustainable Development Program – that one is okay.”

Kenilorea said China was still trying win the “hearts and minds” of Solomon Islanders since the government switched allegiance to China from Taiwan in 2019.

“They’re still feeling that they need to do more on that front and I think there’s a large segment of Solomon Islands who are not convinced yet, in terms of why the switch had to happen; so, I think they’re still going on that promotion and advocacy that they do or propaganda.”

Two billboards in Honiara promoting China’s involvement in both the CDF and the RSDP despite China no longer contributing to the CDF. Phot taken by independent MP Peter Kenilorea Jr

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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