Luke Haga has spent the past two years getting ready for the race of his life. Haga, a sprinter, is preparing for the Pacific Games which will be held in his home of Solomon Islands in November.
“It’s a time for sports, fun, and to celebrate our togetherness, ” says the 23-year-old, who is training for his events in China.
Held every four years, athletes from 24 Pacific Island countries will compete in the Olympic-style tournament. While many share Haga’s excitement, the Games have also attracted controversy, primarily over the cost. Solomon Islands is one of the poorest nations in the Pacific and China, along with other countries, will foot most of the bill. The two-week event has been criticised for diverting funds from much-needed services in the country and prompting school closures. Questions have also been raised over how the new infrastructure will be maintained in the long term.
China’s ‘shrewd diplomacy’
National Hosting Authority executive director Christian Nieng says the Games will be funded 80% from foreign sources and the remainder by Solomon Islands.
China has spent 1bn Solomon Islander dollars (SBD) ($119m; £93m) on facilities for the tournament, notably a 10,000-seat National Stadium, according to Solomon Islands and China’s government.
In addition to the stadium, Beijing has helped build sports facilities including a swimming pool, tennis courts and administration buildings.
At the opening of the stadium last month, China’s ambassador to Solomon Islands, Li Ming, said the facility was “a gift from China.”
“The stadium now belongs to the people of the Solomon Islands. There are no political conditions attached,” Li said.
“It’s the largest facility in the Pacific and symbolizes the friendship between the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and Solomon Islands,” Li said, describing it as a “historic achievement under the Belt and Road initiative”.
Solomon Islands signed a security deal with China last year, prompting concern from western countries over Beijing’s rising influence in the Pacific region. Earlier this year prime minister Manasseh Sogavare met president Xi Jinping in Beijing as the two countries appeared to draw closer. Sogavare switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.
“Our relationship has grown stronger in just a matter of a few years since the establishment of diplomatic relations,” Sogavare said at the stadium opening.
Associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Dr Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, described China’s support for the games as “shrewd diplomacy”.
“The PRC’s investments in the construction of the stadium and other sports facilities for the Pacific Games is shrewd diplomacy on Beijing’s part.”
“Chinese officials may argue that there are no ‘political conditions’ attached to the assistance, there is no doubt that it strengthens China’s relationship with Solomon Islands,” he says.
Kabutaulaka said the stadium will be “highly visible” and therefore influential as a political tool, that may influence other Pacific nations.
“It is meant to amaze them on what Beijing can do and hence influence the region’s perception of China,” he says.
Many other countries are also chipping in, and last year Australia committed $17m to support the Games. Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea and New Zealand also provided funding for the Games.
Country ‘neglected’ in favour of Games
Sogavare described hosting the Games as “an investment in the future of our country.” Opposition leader Matthew Wale says the event will “enhance our nation’s image in the region” while voicing concerns about the government’s priorities. In August, critical shortages of medicines at hospitals and health centres were seen across the country.
“Games spending is concentrated in Honiara while the rest of the country is being neglected in terms of development and medical supplies,” Wale says.
Wale also questioned how the facilities will be maintained and funded in the longer term. Peter Kenilorea Jr, also a member of the opposition group, cautioned that maintaining what he described as “vanity infrastructure” facilities post-Games could pose significant financial challenges.
“The question of whether we can host has always been a concern. The simple answer is that we can’t afford it,” Kenilorea Jr says.
Sogavare said the government will develop a “plan for maintaining these facilities,” with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to oversee facility maintenance for the next 2 years.
Former Olympian Primo Higa, who is training Haga and 11 other athletes for the Games, shares enthusiasm for the event while also reflecting on the financial strain.
“Because of the love for the games, even though I have not enough support for my athletes, I keep training them. Sometimes I have to dig deep into my pockets just to keep us going,” he says.
Excitement tempered with concern
As the Games approach, people in Honiara hold mixed feelings.
School teacher Derek Mai, 52, says many are “excited about the games [but] the high entrance fees make it unaffordable for ordinary citizens.”
“The government should provide reasonable entrance fees for everyone to enjoy the games,” Mai says.
Ticket prices range from SBD200 for the opening and closing ceremony to SBD30 a day for general admission to most venues.
Activist Lawrence Makili, 61, from Malaita Outer Islands, criticised a plan to shorten the academic year due to the Games. Schools across the country will finish the year around a month earlier to allow some schools in Honiara to be used for Games accommodation, and also to enable people to take part in the event as volunteers or athletes.
“We seem to prioritise a two-week event over the future of our young people. Education shouldn’t be disturbed at all,” he says.
Still, competitor Haga says the Games are an important for the Pacific region.
“I simply can’t wait to meet our Pacific family,” he says.
“I am sure all Pacific athletes are well prepared for the games, and so we are. To me it’s a symbol of unity … We are one people,” he says.