About 5,000 athletes are expected to descend on Honiara for the Pacific Games

Honiara (AFP) - A years-long saga mixing big-power rivalry, Chinese money and delayed national elections will reach a conclusion of sorts when the Pacific Games open on Sunday in the remote Solomon Islands.

About 5,000 athletes and officials from 24 Pacific nations are descending on the poverty-stricken capital Honiara for the Olympic-style event.

Over the following fortnight athletes will compete for gold in two dozen sports from archery and bodybuilding to va’a, or canoe racing.

It is the biggest sports event ever hosted by the Solomons, a string of islands about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) off Australia’s northeast coast.

Yet the intrigue extends far beyond sport.

The archipelago has been in the crosshairs of US-China tensions since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.

China has rapidly strengthened ties since, signing a secretive security pact with the Solomons last year and sparking Western fears that Beijing could be seeking a strategic military foothold.

Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, will host the Pacific Games

China is also competing with US allies including Australia for diplomatic influence, notably financing a swathe 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 sharp contrast to the dusty roads and flimsy homes in Honiara’s poorer suburbs.

“The centrepiece of the Games is a huge and very impressive stadium, so that reflects the very concrete engagement by China,” said Meg Keen, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute think tank’s Pacific Islands programme.

- Ramped-up security -

China has ploughed in about $53 million for the sporting venues, which it has committed to maintain for two years, Keen told AFP.

It is also spending an unknown amount in areas such as additional policing and security equipment, she said.

To ensure the Games pass peacefully, Australia has sent 100 police officers and 350 defence personnel to assist the local force.

About 90 military personnel from New Zealand are also helping.

China is set to expand its small security team of about half a dozen people in Honiara, Keen said, estimating it could double in size, though no figures have been released.

Organisers put the cost of hosting the Games at about 2.5 billion Solomon Islands dollars ($295 million).

But the island state’s opposition says the multi-sports event is also exacting a democratic price.

The Pacific Games are in the Solomons for the first time

In 2022, Sogavare pushed a change to the constitution through parliament, shifting elections from the end of this year until sometime before the end of April 2024.

He argued that the country could not host the Games and general elections in quick succession.

- ‘Terrible judgement’ -

Opposition leader Matthew Wale called that “a terrible excuse”.

“I don’t think the Games themselves are the real grounds for the postponement,” he told AFP, accusing the government of acting out of fear it would lose the election.

“I think they are assuming that people will feel good from the Games and therefore vote them back into office.”

Wale urged the premier to be transparent about its security pact with China.

“We don’t want to arouse the wrong attention from anybody. Signing secret military or security agreements, which the prime minister did, puts us in that place,” Wale said.

“America has no idea what it is, so they need to be prepared for all options in case there is something with military implications.

“That is a terrible judgement by the prime minister.”

The money invested in sports facilities would have been better spent on healthcare and education, Wale said.

“The Games have been a magnet to attract government resources to be poured into Honiara, so there is a sense of general neglect of rural areas,” he added.

- Mixed reactions -

Anticipation is building in Honiara on the eve of the Games, but the event’s media co-ordinator Jeremy Inifiri admits there is also some scepticism from the public.

“To be frank, there are still mixed reactions,” he told AFP.

“There was a lot of negativity, especially on social media, mostly over China and the geo-politics.”

Test events at the new stadium attracted crowds of around 6,000, he said.

“Slowly, everyone is getting into the feel of sports – starting to accept that the facilities are here for our benefit, not for political benefits,” he said.

For veteran weightlifter Jenly Wini, who won the Solomons’ first-ever Commonwealth Games medal in 2018, it’s a rare chance to compete in front of a home crowd.

“This will be the first Pacific Games the Solomon Islands has hosted, so it will be a bit of history for the country,” the 40-year-old told AFP.