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This week’s Asia Review focuses on the recent riots in the Solomon Islands and probes the complex drivers behind them, primarily deep-seated local economic grievances which are being rendered volatile under a geopolitical overhang. The edition looks at how a leading news outlet in that country is viewing these drivers, and also delves into key indicators that highlight the deepening economic malaise there. Plus: the murder of a Sri Lankan national in Pakistan and why China could worry about it, and the universal behavior of random matrices.
The Local Becomes Global in the Solomon Islands
|Australian Army Corporal Aaron Woodham walks during a community engagement patrol through Honiara, Solomon Islands, November 27, 2021.|
|— Cpl. Brandon Grey, Australian Department of Defence via AP|
On November 24, hundreds of protesters from a group called Malaita for Democracy gathered outside the Solomon Islands National Parliament in Honiara, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, which soon turned violent and left three people dead. Most protesters came from the islands’ most populous province, Malaita, who “converged” at the capital Honiara, where they burnt down buildings, looted shops, marched to the Chinese embassy, set fire to businesses, schools and even the prime minister’s residence.
Although tensions have been brewing for long—between the national government and the Malaita provincial government over the former’s decision to recognize China—the protests came as a surprise to politicians and local residents. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, arrested hundreds, and the government announced a 36 hour lockdown to manage riots. The Central Bank of Solomon Islands estimates damages amounting to approximately $64 million, of which infrastructure damages from burning and looting are estimated to be $36.72 million. The bank also estimates government loses to be around 31 percent of its monthly revenue, further worsening the fiscal deficit to around five-six percent of the country’s GDP by the end of 2021. Although media reports suggest the volatile situation has “calmed” down and violence has receded, an indefinite night-time curfew remains in place.
The immediate cause for the protests seems to be Sogavare’s refusal to meet with the protestors on November 24, who were demanding his removal. Refusing to resign, Sogavare alluded to his government’s decision to switch from Taiwan to China in terms of granting diplomatic recognition and “foreign powers” feeding citizens “false and deliberate lies” as the only cause of riots. In 2019, Solomon Islands ended 36 years of diplomatic relations with Taiwan after the government voted to recognize China. Reports suggest that this move came after the Chinese promised financial aid worth $730 million to the small island nation, which is yet to materialize.
Daniel Suidani—the premier of Malatia and an outspoken critic of the move towards China— has organized pro-Taiwan demonstrations. He has also announced that no Chinese projects would be permitted on Malatia’s soil; neither would any Chinese national be allowed to visit the region. In the midst of the global pandemic last year, the national government’s approval of a flight from Guanghzhou, China to Solomon Islands sparked unrest, and led to Suidani threatening an independence referendum. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that what many describe as Chinese interference has caused domestic unrest in the county. In 2006, the election of Snyder Rini as prime minister led to violence targeting Chinese-owned businesses, because of claims that the elections were rigged, for which Chinese businesspeople allegedly provided financial assistance.
Nevertheless, Suidani who continues to maintain that Solomon Islands should recognize Taiwan, blamed “long standing domestic issues over the economy and land rights” and not foreign interference as a cause of the riots. Indeed, lack of government accountability, jobs, corruption, foreign businesses not providing jobs to locals, unequal distribution of resources have been persistent complaints of locals. This has led some experts to comment that the current conflict is not just about China or Taiwan, but relates to fundamental questions concerning decentralization of power. Jonathan Pryke, the Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute, aptly captures the current situation when he said: “Geopolitical tensions have been the spark but not the major driver.” A mix of decades-long grievances by common people struggling to meet ends, together with a sense of relative deprivation, aggravated by apathy from the national government, have contributed to this dire situation.
However, China’s steadily increasing influence in the island nation cannot be ignored. In the five-year period between 2016 and 2020, trade with China accounted for an average of 40.6 percent of Solomon Islands’ total trade. However, the unrest there confirms that despite deepening economic ties with—and now, with Sogavare’s decision last year to officially recognize—China, local grievances continue to mount, threatening peace and stability and allowing foreign powers (whatever their motives may be) to situate the country within their larger strategic-security frames.
Already, the presence of foreign troops from U.S. allied Australia, (along with New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea)—which has a rather paternalistic approach to the Pacific Islands nations in general— adds a stark geopolitical color to the recent developments in the Solomon Islands. Voices pointing towards Washington’s missed “golden opportunity” in Solomon Islands to assert its presence are an unwitting reminder that intensifying Sino-American rivalry is unlikely to leave any part of the globe untouched, a throwback to the Cold War.
Fear and Loathing in Honiara
|Debris lies on the street outside damaged shops in Chinatown, Honiara, Solomon Islands, November 26, 2021.|
|— AP Photo, Piringi Charley|
News outlets from the Solomon Islands seem to be endorsing the view examined above, that deep-seated local grievances more than geopolitical maneuvering are behind the current unrest in the island country even though geopolitics has indeed cast a long shadow over them.
On November 30, Solomon Times reprinted an East Asia Forum article by Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos that noted: “Sogavare has also used geopolitics as a gambit. Seeking to divert attention away from the domestic drivers of the unrest, he blamed foreign powers for influencing Malaitan discontent.” “While attributing the unrest in the Solomon Islands solely to geopolitical manoeuvring is simplistic, it provides a warning of how strategic competition can undermine resilience and contribute to fragility,” Powles and Sousa-Santos accurately observed.
On December 3, the same newspaper reprinted an article from Devpolicy Blog, an Australian National University (ANU) publication, authored by ANU professor Stephen Howes. His article—by way of examining the causes behind the current unrest— drew on a public-opinion survey in the Solomon Islands carried out in April and May this year, and noted: “If the three problems identified as the most serious (unemployment, cost of living, corruption) are also ones that nearly everyone (almost or more than 90% of the people [per the survey]) thinks are getting worse, that is surely a recipe for frustration and anger – and perhaps violence, if the biggest of those problems is a lack of jobs.”
Solomon Islands’ Economy in Dire Straits
|— Data: World Bank. Graphics: DRI|
Can Pakistan Save CPEC?
|Pakistan Navy soldiers patrol the Gwadar port in Pakistan, April 11, 2016.|
|— AP Photo, Anjum Naveed|
Local conditions—economic as well as socio-cultural—continue to complicate already convoluted geopolitical arrangements more than ten thousand kilometers away from the Solomon Islands, in Pakistan. On December 3, news of brutal killing of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot emerged that threaten to not only upset Pakistan’s careful cultivation of Sri Lanka, but also stands to serve as a counterpoint to Pakistani establishment’s valiant attempts to portray Pakistan as a business-friendly nation.
Reacting to the lynching of Priyantha Kumara by a mob that accused him of blasphemy, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “The horrific vigilante attack on factory in Sialkot & the burning alive of Sri Lankan manager is a day of shame for Pakistan.” Khan also personally committed to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice.
But Sri Lanka is unlikely to be alone in watching how Khan’s government acts. Beijing—after having sunk billions in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—is also likely to be watching the developments closely, perhaps with a degree of understated trepidation.
In the past, attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan have understandably worried Beijing and Islamabad. But not all of these attacks have been carried out by terrorists. Recall that it was an attack on a Chinese-run massage parlor by vigilantes from Islamabad’s famous Lal Masjid in the summer of 2007 that led then Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf to storm it, putting him on a collision course with Islamists in the middle of the U.S. “Global War on Terror.”
Meanwhile, the future of CPEC itself looks uncertain—and its potential to lift Pakistan from the country’s current economic mess remote. A new DRI report examines multiple data streams to look at how the marque Belt and Road Initiative fits within the larger frame of Pakistan’s economy, and also delves into security risks to key CPEC projects.
Just like the Solomon Islands, local grievances, persistent economic problems, and geopolitics continue to interact in unpredictable ways in Pakistan.
Read an excerpt
Access the report
Random Matrices and Universality
|— Flickr, Boris Kiriako|
Complex systems that consist of interlinked and correlated components (as diverse in nature as decentralized public transportation systems, the distribution of prime numbers, or scattering resonance of “large” atomic nuclei) often exhibit a common pattern called “universality,” where they exhibit similar behavior—laying somewhere between being completely random and completely deterministic— independent of their components (in this instance, buses, prime numbers, neutrons and protons inside the nuclei).
Moreover, the degree of complexity of the system is understood to be positively associated with the degree of universality it exhibits. When systems are sufficiently complex and correlated, they exhibit universality in their spectrum. Think of their spectrum as a bar-code-like sequence representing relevant data (bus departure times, or the zeros of the Riemann zeta function for example).
While complexity of a system does not guarantee universality, the presence of universality is enough to label the system as complex, correlated, and comparable in behavior to a random matrix—a fact very useful in devising ways to model the outcome of that system, for example, in predicting the behavior of Internet users in a geographical cluster. Random matrices (matrices whose entries are random variables) are extremely useful because they act as stand-ins for these complex systems—irrespective of these systems’ components—and can be studied rigorously to find properties that can be generalized to those systems. The spectrum of these matrices (in terms of studying the spacings between their eigenvalues) exhibit common, “universal,” properties.
Why don’t simple systems exhibit universality? In simple systems, one or two components greatly influence the behavior of the system, and so the distribution of those particular components ultimately dictate the outcome of the system. That is not the case with complex systems, with such a large number of “microscopic” components that the behavior of a few of them is irrelevant when it comes to studying their “macroscopic” properties. As Van Vu, a prominent mathematician and Yale professor who proved universality in random matrices (along with Fields Medalist Terence Tao), put it, “[i]t’s like if you have a room with a lot of people and they decide to do something, the personality of one person isn’t that important.”
Universality and random matrices seem to have almost universal applications: For example, they have been used to model the heat transfer (that is, melting) of Arctic sea ice in terms of modeling it as an Ising model which is known to exhibit universality. Interestingly, universality was even found in the distribution of cells in retinas of chickens, described as “disordered hyperuniformity.”
Natalie Wolchover, “In Mysterious Pattern, Math and Nature Converge,” Wired, June 2, 2013 (an excellent primer on universality and random matrices the preceding partly drew from).
This video provides a great example and the theoretical foundation to understand the concept of universality.
Terence Tao, E pluribus unum: From Complexity, Universality, Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Summer 2012, is a non-technical but accurate summary of the relationship between complexity and universality.
The mathematical physicist and polymath Freeman Dyson, whose work on random matrices with collaborators provided some of the early foundational clues about the universal properties of random matrices, was also, among many other things, deeply involved in Cold War security and geopolitical issues as a part-time U.S. government employee and contractor. For a precis of two of Dyson’s Cold War contributions, see Abhijnan Rej, “Freeman Dyson and the Challenges of the First Nuclear Age,” Wire Science, March 7, 2020.
DRI’s Research Analysts Rushali Saha and Malvika Rajeev and Director of Research Abhijnan Rej contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review.
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