By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
The pre-covid British Royal Tour to New Zealand was somewhat overshadowed by the media coverage of Prince Andrews ill-advised interview concerning dodgy sexual escapades, however in an overlooked incident, a Gentlemanly gesture has the potential to create a little push-back against China’s Belt & Road Initiative. As part of the New Zealand trip, the Prince visited the Solomon Islands, which maintains the Queen as Sovereign Head of State. There is some significance here as the Solomon Islands had signed up to China’s Belt & Road Initiative just a month before.
The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had travelled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October 2019, during which the standard MoU was signed off, with China promising an increase in the number of Chinese tourists, while Chinese interests will lie also in the development of fisheries, copra and palm oil supplies. Most of the Solomon Islands machinery and infrastructure has to be imported, and the Belt & Road agreement with Honiara is said to be worth US$500 million and to provide for the leasing by China of Tulaghi Island, which is the home of the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara, as well as and the construction of a gas and oil terminal. On top of that, the President of China Rail told Sogavare the company will help Honiara build facilities for the Pacific Games to be held in the Solomons in 2023.
The Solomon’s have been self ruling since 1976, although as Sovereign, the Queen appoints a Secretary-General to act on her behalf, subordinate to her, for a five-year term. Although the office holds considerable reserve powers, it is largely a symbolic position with little day-to-day involvement in government. The UK continues to provide developmental assistance to the Solomon Islands.
Prince Charles is well known for his distrust of the Chinese Government, and also for his commitment to environmental causes. With the potential for mass infrastructure and tourism development in the Solomon’s he will have been concerned by Chinese plans, as he will also have been concerning Chinese financing of such facilities. Neither the British Crown nor the British Government will want to have a member nation of its Commonwealth asset stripped with the Solomon Islands Government and citizens asking the UK for assistance and begging the Queen – or Prince Charles – to intervene in the wake of any Chinese or Solomon Islands mismanagement.
Here then, lies an interesting development. The British Royal Family, as Sovereign Head of State, potentially acting as due diligence advisers to its subjects over China’s Belt & Road Initiative.
Belt & Road Nations Where Queen Elizabeth II Remains Head Of State
Antigua & Barbuda
Papua New Guinea
There is room for such initiatives, as long as they are not considered to be interfering with Government. However, although China’s Belt & Road Initiative is largely a diplomatic effort backed up with financing, infrastructure and trade development, much of the role played by the Governor-General in each of the countries concerned is too. These far-flung remnants of the Commonwealth then play an intriguing role for Chinese diplomacy – dealing not only with the incumbent Prime Minister, but also with the Representative of the Queen as Head of State. Prince Charles himself will become the Head of State in due course. Should he choose to get involved as having a voice that matters when it comes to China, he is the sort of man to make his views known.
Meanwhile, on the New Zealand and Solomons Islands Royal Visit, Prince Charles ingratiated himself with the locals by both speaking in their local dialects in addition to engaging in a spot of nose rubbing as a traditional welcome. It is doubtful that Xi Jinping, even if he ever were to endorse China’s Belt & Road Initiative with a personal visit to these islands, would ever be seen in anything other than a dark suit or to be offering his nose for a bit of friendly native nasal massaging. For the locals, that might also prove symbolic. A sense of belonging to a family often runs deeper than wallets.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates and the Publisher of Asia Briefing.