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Restoring Solomon Islands links to good health

By Anthony Bergin and John Stephen

The regional picture in the Pacific Islands, while still fragile, is looking brighter. China’s growing influence in the region hasn’t ended, but there are signs it’s slowed.

A year ago Vanuatu looked like it would fall under significant Chinese influence. A new government in Vanuatu has changed that, as evidenced by the visit by new Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau to Canberra.

Fiji’s new Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, campaigned openly against closer engagement with China. China’s attempt to play “divide and rule” in the Pacific Islands Forum backfired spectacularly. China had wanted a majority of island nations to sign up to a security agreement with it but the approach was rejected by Pacific Island leaders.

Kiribati broke away from the forum. But some skilful regional diplomacy, including by Foreign Minister Penny Wong, has seen Kiribati come back to the fold. Papua New Guinea has also now committed to a comprehensive defence and security agreement with Australia.

The only island country where China continues to have growing success is Solomon Islands. The Sogavare government two years ago signed a security deal to allow the deployment of Chinese forces to protect Chinese citizens and major projects. A few weeks ago the premier of the Malaita provincial government, Daniel Suidani, was ejected in a vote of no confidence. Suidani has courageously stood up to China.

Beijing has just appointed a “special envoy of the Chinese government” to the Pacific Islands to expand its influence in the region. To resist this pressure Australia needs to continue to demonstrate our importance to Solomon Islanders, whatever the risks their government poses. We should do that by continuing our help to them to meet the massive challenges they face. The country’s national security strategy ranks health security as the number two threat behind climate change. That’s why it was commendable that Wong recently announced Australia would will invest in high-quality health programs across the Pacific (and Southeast Asia) in order to promote regional security and stability. As part of building on our expanded regional health assistance and showing we’re serious about supporting the long-term needs of Solomon Islands communities we should introduce a medical education partnership program with our strategically important Melanesian neighbour.

We have several visiting medical, surgical and paediatric groups providing support to Solomon Islands. We have also promised $143m in support for the country’s health sector support program. But there’s a key gap we should fill. There’s no medical school in Solomon Islands. Australia hasn’t trained a single medical student in the Solomons through to graduation. Not one! There are no plans to do so.

Most recent Solomon Islanders (about 11 per annum) have been trained on full scholarships at the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba (of all places) and a few in Fiji and PNG. Pacific Island countries, including the Solomons, say their Cuban-trained doctors are struggling to practise in English because their training was conducted in Spanish. The Solomons is chronically short of doctors, where the ratio of one per 4000 people is at least 12 times less than in Australia.

James Cook University at Townsville and Cairns provides an excellent medical course. There are several other suitable universities. Around $100,000 per student per year over six years would cover all costs. Ten students per year wouldn’t be too ambitious. Filling this obvious health need for a key island neighbour would be a real winner.

Originally published by: The Australian on 13 Mar 2023