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Here’s my review of Michael Wesley ‘Helpem Fren’ in The Weekend Australian.

11 March 2023 571 views No Comment

Deep dive into complex legacies of RAMSI

Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands 2003-2017

By Michael Wesley

Melbourne University Press 

310pp, Pb, $40.00

reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD

Australia is currently confronting our most serious challenges in the Pacific for seventy years.

In 2023 Prime minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong began expanding Australia’s strategic and economic presence in one of our closest neighbours, Solomon Islands 

Australia’s current initiatives in Solomon Islands are happening as, after a 30-year absence, America recently opened a permanent embassy in Honiara, in an attempt to counter the increasing influence of China, which had established a huge embassy there in 2020. This followed the Solomon Islands government of Manesseh Sogavare severing 36 years of diplomatic ties with Taiwan and dramatically switching allegiances to Beijing. In September 2019 Prime Minister Sogavare stated that the recognition of China would better enable Solomon Islands “to stand up to Australia”.

With that in mind, Michael Wesley’s scrupulously researched analysis of Australia’s Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon’s is extremely timely. 

Written from an Australian perspective, Helpem Fren usefully explains what happened with RAMSI between its founding in 2003 and its withdrawal in 2017. This excellent book draws on numerous scholarly studies, newspaper articles, on-the-record and anonymous interviews, plus access to key official documents. The latter include files and cables about RAMSI from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other sometimes classified sources. 

Initially established to prevent the economic, fiscal and political collapse of the Solomon Islands state, the assistance mission, which cost $2.6 billion, involved thousands of soldiers, police and public servants from Australia and other Pacific countries. 

Michael Wesley first began numerous field trips to Guadalcanal and other parts of the Solomon Islands in 2015. As he cogently argues, “in an age of disastrous interventions, (RAMSI) was remarkably successful.” Yet, shortly after the mission was closed, it vanished from the forefront of the attention of most of our citizenry and many of our politicians. This, he claims, even applied to John Howard, who as Liberal Party prime minister had established RAMSI in 2003.

Trained as a political scientist and based in Melbourne, Wesley is a former assistant-director at the Office of National Assessments and a long-time scholar of Australian foreign policy. This includes our relations with the Solomon Islands, which from 1893 until its independence in 1978 had been a British Protectorate.

In Helpem Fren, Wesley explores crucial Australian interactions with a nation that is fundamentally different in politics, culture, size, education, stability, levels of corruption, and capacity for sustainable development. He also provides detailed portraits of the often quite complex political and other personalities involved with RAMSI. These fascinating mini-biographies deal with participants in Australia, the Solomons, and throughout the Pacific region.

As Wesley documents, the RAMSI intervention “stamped out a cycle of violence, criminality and state dysfunction.” To most Solomon Islanders, helping rescue their nation from disorder and disarray remains the mission most important achievement. Wesley explains that “Australia’s diplomatic objectives, of promoting Pacific solidarity and (our) leadership in the region were also achieved, but have been less enduring.” 

This is in part because, previous to the ALP winning federal office last year, our stance on climate change eroded Australia’s legitimacy as a member of the Pacific community. This meant that our relations with Solomon Islands were nowhere as close as they had been 2003 and 2017. 

Helpem Fren makes clear that the RAMSI intervention “occurred in the midst of a global ’state-building movement’ created by a coincidence of fears of transnational disorder, and over-exaggerated beliefs in the effectiveness of Western military power.” Underpinning the mission was an assumption prevailing at the time about the inherent superiority of Western neoliberalism.

Wesley correctly concludes that the legacies of RAMSI are many and complex.  

The dispatch of Australian police and soldiers to Solomon Islands in November 2021, may have led prime minister Scott Morrison to believe that our mutual relations remained as warm as ever. But Wesley warns that, especially in the light of the Iraq invasion and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Australian governments should be wary in the future of undertaking “any intervention as ambitious as RAMSI.”

In Helpem Fren, he argues that Honiara’s relationship with Bejing provided Solomon Islands with “leverage over (our federal government), using fears of Chinese influence to induce Australia to commit to building an undersea internet cable to the country. rather than allow a Chinese company to do so.” Moreover, the signing of a security agreement between Solomons Island and China in May last year “suggests this dynamic still has a long way to run.” 

However, the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between Canberra and Bejing, coupled with the Albanese government’s currently improving relations with Solomon Islands, may afford us some cause for optimism.

Wesley’s comprehensive history of the Solomon Islands, and of RAMSI in particular, is helpfully indexed. However it’s a pity that this well-produced paperback contains no maps, and no photographs or other illustrations.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. His most recent book is My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics, co-edited with Neal Price and published by Connor Court in Brisbane.

The Weekend Australian, March 11-12, 2023, Review, Books, pp 16-17.

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