Honiara (AFP) – A long-running saga mixing big-power rivalries, Chinese money and delayed national elections will reach a conclusion of sorts when the Pacific Games open on Sunday in the remote Solomon Islands.
Around 5,000 athletes and officials from 24 Pacific nations are descending on the impoverished capital of Honiara for the Olympic-style event.
Over the next two weeks, athletes will compete for gold in two dozen sports from archery and bodybuilding to wa’a, or canoe racing.
It is the biggest sporting event ever hosted by the Solomons, a string of islands about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off Australia’s northeast coast.
But the intrigue extends far beyond sports.
The archipelago has been at the center of US-China tensions since Prime Minister Manase Sogavare transferred diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.
Since then, China has rapidly strengthened ties, signing a secret security pact with the Solomon Islands last year and stoking Western fears that Beijing may seek a strategic military foothold.
China is also competing with US allies, including Australia, for diplomatic influence, notably funding a range of new facilities for the Games.
China has financed and built five of the sports facilities, including a 10,000-seat arena with a gleaming blue running track to host the athletics events – a stark contrast to the dusty roads and fragile homes in Honiara’s poorer suburbs.
“The Games Center is a huge and very impressive stadium, so this reflects a very specific commitment by China,” said Meg Keane, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute.
China has invested about $53 million in the sports facilities, which it has committed to maintaining over two years, Keane told AFP.
It is also spending an undisclosed amount on areas such as additional police and security equipment, she said.
To ensure the games went off peacefully, Australia sent 100 police and 350 defense personnel to assist local forces.
About 90 servicemen from New Zealand are also helping.
China is about to expand its small security team of about half a dozen people in Honiara, Keane said, estimating it could double in size, although no figures were released.
Organizers put the cost of hosting the games at about $2.5 billion from the Solomon Islands ($295 million).
But the island nation’s opposition says the multi-sport event also demands a democratic price.
In 2022, Sogavare pushed a constitutional change through parliament, pushing the election from the end of that year to sometime before the end of April 2024.
He argued that the country could not host the games and general elections in quick succession.
Opposition Leader Matthew Vale called it a “terrible excuse”.
“I don’t think the games themselves are the real reason for the postponement,” he told AFP, accusing the government of acting out of fear of losing the election.
“I think they assume people will feel good about the Games and therefore vote them back into office.”
Well urged the prime minister to be transparent about his security pact with China.
“We don’t want to get the wrong attention from anybody. The signing of secret military or security deals that the prime minister has done puts us in that place,” Weil said.
“America has no idea what this is, so they have to be prepared for all options in case there is something with military implications.”
“This is a terrible sentence by the Prime Minister.
Money invested in sports facilities would be better spent on health and education, Weil said.
“The Games were a magnet for government resources to be poured into Honiara, so there is a sense of a general neglect of rural areas,” he added.
Anticipation is building in the run-up to the Honiara Games, but event media coordinator Jeremy Inifiri admits there is also some skepticism from the public.
“To be honest, there are still mixed reactions,” he told AFP.
“There was a lot of negativity, especially on social media, mostly about China and geopolitics.”
Test events at the new stadium drew crowds of about 6,000, he said.
“Slowly everyone is getting into the feeling of sport – they are starting to accept that the facilities are here for our benefit and not for political gain,” he said.
For veteran weightlifter Jenny Winnie, who won her first ever medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it’s a rare chance to compete in front of her home crowd.
“This will be the first Pacific Games that the Solomon Islands have hosted, so it will be a piece of history for the country,” the 40-year-old told AFP.
© 2023 AFP