Solomons picks China-friendly Manele as new PM

Kirsty Needham |

Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manelehas been declared the Solomon Islands’ new prime minister.
Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manelehas been declared the Solomon Islands’ new prime minister.

Solomon Islands MPs have selected Jeremiah Manele as their new prime minister, elevating the former foreign minister who has pledged to continue the Pacific Island nation’s international policy that drew it closer to China.

Manele won 31 votes to Opposition Leader Matthew Wales’ 18 votes in the 50-seat parliament, Governor-General Sir David Vunagi announced outside parliament house on Thursday.

A national election in April resulted in the government of pro-Beijing prime minister Manasseh Sogavare losing half its seats but failed to deliver a majority to any political party.

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare and China's Li Qiang
Manasseh Sogavare built close ties with Beijing, raising concerns in Australia and the US. (AP PHOTO)

The government and opposition parties lobbied intensively for weeks to win support from independents before the vote for prime minister.

The election was closely watched by China, the United States and Australia because of the potential impact on regional security after Sogavare struck a controversial security pact with China in 2022.

The United States and Australia are concerned about China’s naval ambitions in Pacific countries as tensions rise over Taiwan.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he looked forward to working closely with Manele.

“Australia and Solomon Islands are close friends and our futures are connected,” he wrote on social media platform X.

China’s embassy said in a Facebook post it looked forward to “working with you to develop China-Solomon Islands relations and deliver more benefits to our peoples”.

Sogavare, who built close ties with Beijing during five years in power but only narrowly held his seat, did not seek re-election to the top office and his party backed Manele.

Wale’s opposition coalition had criticised the arrival of Chinese police in Solomons in 2022 and favoured returning to closer ties with traditional aid donors such as Australia and accepting infrastructure aid from the United States.

Manele used his first speech as leader to promise to govern with integrity and to put his nation’s interests first.

“I will discharge my duties diligently and with integrity. I will at all times put the interests of our people and country above all other interests,” Manele said.

He also urged against any post-election violence, saying “we must respect the democratic process for electing our prime minister”.

The economy was slowly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 anti-government riots, and the government would soon unveil tax, forestry and minerals policies, he said. 

Manele is a former diplomat who entered parliament in 2014, and travelled to China as foreign minister in 2019 to formalise Solomon Islands’ switch in diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing.

On Monday, Manele said he would keep the “same foreign policy basis: friends to all and enemies to none”.

China has built sporting stadiums, ports, roads and a Huawei telecommunications network in the Solomon Islands, although Australia remains the country’s biggest aid donor.

Voters queue to vote in Honiara during the Solomon Islands election
The Solomons’ national election in April resulted in the Sogavare government losing half its seats. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Sogavare was known for thundering rhetoric against Western-style democracy at home, and unpredictable diplomacy on the world stage.

He criticised Australia, snubbed a White House meeting with Pacific leaders because he said he wanted to avoid a lecture, and declared “I’m back home” while stepping off a plane in Beijing a few months later.

Sogavare’s election in 2019 sparked riots in the capital Honiara over legal questions hanging over his eligibility to become prime minister.

More serious riots resulted in arson and looting in Honiara in November 2021 after his leadership survived a no-confidence motion moved by Wale.

Sogavare had maintained Australia was his country’s preferred security partner despite the bilateral deal with Beijing signed in 2022.

AFP Special Operations members arrive in Honiara in November 2021
Australian police have been maintaining public order in Honiara since they were sent in late 2021. (AP PHOTO)

Chinese police trainers are in the capital Hoinara under the terms of that deal.

Australian police have been maintaining public order in Honiara since Sogavare invited them in late 2021 following the unrest under a 2017 bilateral security treaty.

Lowy Institute research fellow Mihai Sora said Manele had “a strong track record of working well with all international partners”, compared with Sogavare who was “a polarising figure”.

Australian National University’s Pacific expert Graeme Smith said Manele was capable and “a big change in style” for the Solomon Islands.

Reuters with AP