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Jason Hamilton-Smith wears a couple of hats. He counsels suicidal young men, he rears a rare form of Scottish Highland cattle, but on this humid day he is a soldier, patrolling the outskirts of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.

The 34-year-old and his mates stop in Halelo, with its huts, coconut trees and beautiful ocean vista. The Australian soldiers introduce themselves in broken Melanesian pidgin. Peter, an old man in a sarong, strikes up a chat in his own broken English.

While the soldiers and Peter seem worlds away, they all wear their hearts on their sleeves. The Australians have a patch that reads “Operation Helpem Fren”, which in Melanesian means “Helping friend”. It is the motto for the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which arrived in the troubled country in July 2003 to end five years of civil war. Shirtless, Peter has a tattoo of an eagle with the banner MEF, which stands for the Malaitan Eagle Force, one of the militia groups involved in the violence that prompted the arrival of soldiers into this tiny, remote South Pacific island nation.

Home to just over half a million people, living on six main islands, Solomon Islanders eke out a living from fishing and agriculture. Predominantly Christian, some still worship sharks and eagles; in remote areas, there are tribes that have just started using cooking pots.

The Solomon Islands are also famous as the site of a decisive Second World War battle. Between August 1942 and February 1943, the Allies launched their first major offensive against the Japanese from the main island of Guadalcanal. War buffs travel to the hills to visit a plain granite memorial commemorating Allied victory and to get one of the best views of Honiara, a grubby seaside town offering shipwreck scuba diving, intense humidity and half-decent restaurants serving famed Vanuatu steaks. Six decades later, this island nation is again playing a key role in a war of global significance, albeit, this time, a diplomatic one.

After years of neglect, the Solomons and other Pacific Island states – tiny speckles in the world’s largest ocean – are finding the international community is suddenly interested in their fate. John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia – dubbed “America’s deputy sheriff” – has, with New Zealand, taken a hands-on approach to his neighbourhood. The two countries are now motivated by a fear that “failed states” in the region could become a home for criminals and terrorists – or worse a base for a foreign power to set up shop and attack.

It is leading some to suggest fate is forcing Australia to go from former colony to neocolonialist. The new policy of intervention, which began in 2003 with the mission to the Solomon Islands, has since seen Australian soldiers and police dispatched to quell regional troubles they would normally have ignored.

Elite soldiers in East Timor are hunting the rebel leader Alfredo Reinado. Australian federal police are now based throughout the Pacific, with transnational crime units set up in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The “hands on” approach has completely changed AusAID, the overseas development programme. It now has a focus on “good government”, a noble and fashionable concept in international state building, with few examples of success. Australian bureaucrats are now embedded, or have recently been embedded, in Fiji, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. They are running the customs service in Tonga, the courts in Honiara and acting as senior tax advisors in PNG’s Internal Revenue Commission. Up until recently, the police commissioners of Fiji and the Solomon Islands were Australian.

Pacific Island states have found themselves threatened with the withdrawal of Australian aid if “good government” measures are not taken on. “There are no blank cheques,” says Greg Hunt, parliamentary secretary to Alexander Downer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. “Let’s be clear that there has been corruption in PNG and the Solomon Islands, and we are unapologetic about putting clear conditions in terms of use of Australian funds and transparency around these funds.”

But this intimate involvement is annoying regional leaders. Manassesh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, says Australia, through RAMSI, has taken control of his country. The tough-talking Commodore “Frank” Voreqe Bainimarama, who seized power in Fiji in December 2006 through a military coup, has warned of Australia’s strategy to assert power in the Pacific. Sir Michael Somare, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, said in a recent interview: “Their [Australia’s] real intention is to have some controlling device in the whole region.”

Left-wing writers have joined in the attacks, viewing the new age of intervention as self-interested and justified by a flimsy American-style “war on terror” agenda to gain access to the natural resources of the region, which include oil, gas and gold. AidWatch, a watchdog group, said in a 2006 report: “Australia’s aid programme is mired in domestic political expediency, short-term commercial objectives and increasing securitisation.”

While many analysts welcome Australia’s renewed involvement – something had to be done to arrest the region’s slide – the biggest worry is one of diplomatic style. There have been a series of awkward incidents. Downer, the foreign minister, took out an advertisement in the Solomon Islands press attacking Sogavare. Australian police were involved in a raid on the Prime Minister’s Honiara office, which allegedly saw a door kicked down. PNG’s Somare was forced to take his shoes off at a Brisbane airport for a security check and Downer later refused to apologise. Howard’s public comments about Fiji’s coup – that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase asked Australia to send troops – have seen the former leader face questions for treason.

Australia winks at you in Honiara. Two of country’s largest banks, ANZ and Westpac, are on the main drag. Locals sell Winfield Blue, an Australian cigarette, alongside the mildly intoxicating betel nut, which stains the teeth crimson. The chequered police 4WDs look identical to the ones in Sydney and Melbourne. A surprising number of locals wear Australian flag T-shirts and caps that read “G’day mate”.

One man not wearing the T-shirt is Prime Minister Sogavare. His motivations are hard to pin down: in some circles he is described as a nationalist fighting neocolonialism, in others as someone who is doing the bidding of the MEF, his political and financial backers. Solomon Islanders literally sang in the streets when RAMSI arrived. Four years later, church leaders, women’s groups and the slightly inebriated at Club Paradise, a seedy Honiara nightclub, still do. Most are fearful that, if RAMSI leaves, the guns, murder and rape will return.

The breakdown of law and order was prompted by ethnic tensions between Guadalcanal islanders discontented at the growing presence of Malatia islanders on their home turf. Militias were formed on both sides. “Everybody was living in fear. Everything was at its lowest ebb. It was a terrible time,” recalls Festus Suruma, Reverend Bishop of the South Sea Evangelical Church, which sits in the centre of town, opposite the Catholic Church. “We can only thank the Australian government and the Australian people. Otherwise we would be nowhere,” says the father of two, who is actively involved in a much-needed reconciliation process, which in this part of the world includes exchanges of shell money and pigs.

With such obvious public support for the mission, Sogavare will have a tough time expelling RAMSI, which is also made up of, and backed by, 15 countries in the Pacific Islands forum. But Sogavare, a former civil servant, who went to university in New Zealand, is persistent. He told Monocle he intends altering the legislation that allows RAMSI to operate in the country. “The whole act is allowing foreign entities to take over the control of the systems of the Solomon Islands,” he says, during a conversation in his downtown Honiara office.

Sogavare says Howard and Downer “basically, refuse to understand us”. “There is this attitude that seems to be ‘What we say is right and you are not allowed to complain about what is happening in your country or we remove the $800m (€600m) funding for RAMSI. It is a bullying tactic. That is not acceptable.”

Dorothy Wickham is unsurprised by the pressure RAMSI is facing. The star of Solomon Islands journalism runs One News, a local network, and has a national radio programme. “This is the hardest part,” she says. “This is when they are starting to hit the accountability issues, corruption. They are hitting nerves. That is the way it is. People who are crooked don’t like being straightened.” But she also sees that RAMSI politics need to be played better. Canberra needs to make sure it sends culturally sensitive Australian federal police to the islands and improve their diplomatic style.

While Australia pushes “good governance”, China pushes cash. Last year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave no-strings attached loans, worth three billion yuan (€291m), to Pacific countries. Eager to protect vital shipping lanes, China has also constructed buildings throughout the region, such as Vanuatu’s parliamentary buildings and a sport complex in Fiji.

China is also fighting it out with Taiwan in the Pacific. While China wants Taiwan back in its control, Taiwan wants diplomatic recognition as an independent state. At last count, Taiwan was recognised by 18 countries, six of which are Pacific Island nations. As Graham Dobell, an Australian journalist, described in a paper for the Lowy Institute for International Policy earlier this year: “The diplomatic competition between China and Taiwan is destabilising island states in the South Pacific, making Pacific politics more corrupt and more violent.” In April 2006, Honiara’s Chinatown was destroyed by riots and much of the district is yet to be rebuilt.

The riots, according to academic Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, were prompted by a belief that Asians – mainly Chinese businessmen – had bribed MPs to vote for Synder Rini, who backed their interests, as Prime Minister. The alleged cost per bribe was around SI$30,000 to $50,000 (€3,000-5,000). Even if true, they backed the wrong horse; Rini ultimately lost the post to Sogavare. But Taiwan’s efforts in the lead-up to the election – MPs were allegedly given SI$1m (€105,000) – had better results. The Solomon Islands still recognises Taiwan in favour of China. The travails have also travelled to the island state of Vanuatu. In 2004, Serge Vohor, the Prime Minister, lost his job after secretly agreeing to recognise Taiwan over China. He later threatened, and scuffled with, Bao Shusheng, the Chinese ambassador, outside parliament.

Fred Fono, the barefooted leader of the opposition, is weary of allegations made about China and Taiwan corrupting his politics. “There are laws and regulations for funds coming from Taiwan,” he says. “Some of us use Taiwanese funding because of its untied aid. It improves the lives of people in rural areas. We build roads, we build hospitals and we build clinics.” He says the untied aid from Taiwan – unlike Australian aid, which is specified for particular projects – allows the government to determine their own priorities. However, he is politically savvy enough to see the people support RAMSI – and he does as well. “It is a success story in the region.”

For a place classed as one of the world’s worst areas to live, Port Moresby has upbeat moments. The city is set around a pretty harbour, where the noses of shipwrecked boats poke up from its blue water. The local market – where wallaby meat is for sale – buzzes with laughing and friendly smiles. Expats and the elite retreat behind high walls with the type of barbed wire you see wrapped around homes in war-torn Kabul, but they still find respite at the boutique Airways Hotel. The more inquisitive head to the tourist market, where they get a small taste of this culturally diverse nation.

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, PNG was a happening place for young Australians looking for money and a party lifestyle. The country gained independence from Australia in 1975, but Canberra continued to pour money into it. Australian aid now accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the national budget.

But the optimism has been replaced by corruption, violence and a haunting rise in HIV. From the safety of the deck of the Royal Yacht Club, expats speak of carjackings, murder and rape; of a government corrupted by Asian interests in illegal logging. An attempt to get Australian police onto the streets for a RAMSI-style mission was declared unconstitutional by PNG’s Supreme Court – the aid is confined to a “good governance” programme.

Yet, on a crowded football pitch, on the outskirts of Port Moresby, the sight of Dame Carol Kidu – barefoot, laughing and launching the local soccer season – helps expel any thoughts of being in a failed state. The effervescent Kidu was born in Australia and married Buri Kidu, who went on to become PNG’s first chief justice. After his death, she entered politics and is now Minister for Community Development in PNG – the only female cabinet member.

Kidu hopes to see some more sensitivity from Australia when dealing with PNG. “It would be to PNG’s detriment if perceptions of neocolonialism – of Australia being a big brother – push us in other directions completely,” she said. Kidu also sees that Australia needs greater patience when dealing with her adopted homeland. “Yes, we have corruption at many levels. But, in some ways, it is amazing we have held together if you look at the complexity of this nation. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Papua New Guinea won’t be either.”

With PNG looking to China for support and other island leaders threatening to “look north”, Australian policy makers can only hope their politicians find a better way to get their message across.

In the Pacific region, a period of contemplative silence is a common grace during conversation; a skill not generally attributed to Australians.

The analyst’s view

Mark Thompson, analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-funded think tank, says that there are “hard strategic reasons” for involvement in the Pacific. “We don’t want them to be a hot bed for trans-national crime, we don’t want them to be a base for terrorists, we don’t want them to be an opportunity for an external power to come to the region,” he says.

“With the emergence of China and the redefinition of Japan’s role in the region,” he adds, “we need to have a range of military capabilities which are an insurance policy against changes in that balance that might move against us.”

Last month, Howard and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, signed just such a diplomatic insurance policy, which ruffled China. While the joint security statement is “fluffy” says Thomson, it has sent alarm bells ringing in Beijing. When Mr Howard was asked if he would sign a similar agreement with China he said no, because it was not a democracy.

Sea of troubles

Papua New Guinea 1989-98: war between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and government. August 2004: Australian police deployed to fight rampant crime. May 2005: they are withdrawn after presence found to be unconstitutional. August 2006: state of emergency in Southern Highlands.

Timor-Leste 1975-99: Indonesia occupation, 100,000 East Timorese dead. August 1999: vote for independence sparks violence. September 1999: Australia leads UN force into area. May 2002: Timor independence. May 2006: 1,300 Australian troops deployed to restore order.

Solomon Islands July 2003: RAMSI mission arrives in Honiara to quell ethnic fighting. April 2006: riots in Honiara.

Nauru 2001: Australia establishes processing centre for asylum seekers in exchange for aid.

Fiji May and September 1987: coups by Fijians overthrowing Indian-dominated governments. May 2000: coup led by businessman George Speight. December 2006: bloodless coup by Bainimarama.

Indonesia Oct 2002: Jemaah Islamiyah Bali bomb kills over 200 people, including 88 Australians. September 2004: Australian embassy bombed in Jakarta, killing nine. October 2005: three bombs in Bali kill 26.

Tonga November 2006: riot kills at least eight people in capital Nuku’alofa. Australia and NZ send 150 soldiers and police.

Vanuatu March 2007: state of emergency declared after islanders from Ambrym and Tanna clash in the capital reportedly over allegations of witchcraft. Three dead.

Kiribati November 2003: diplomatic relations established with Taiwan; China removes satellite tracking station.

Samoa February 2004: Australia provides funds to train security forces. China builds government offices and swimming pool in capital, Apia, for 2007 South Pacific Games.

After the tsunami

On 2 April, the western Solomon Islands were hit by a 10m tsunami that left 15 dead and 900 homes destroyed. Prime Minister Sogavare was forced to declare a state of emergency. The Australian government immediately promised aid and said that members of RAMSI would help with relief efforts. Once again, the disaster underscored the key role Australia plays in the region and the difficulty Sogavare has attempting to turn his back on Canberra.

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