April 2, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

China moves frontline to Solomons, locals fight back

April 2, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

China moves frontline to Solomons, locals fight back

Alexandria, VA: This is Beijing’s “Oh yeah? So what are you gonna do about it?” moment. With the confirmation of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands—a country approximately 1200 miles northeast of Australia—Beijing is openly showing that, on the political warfare front at the very least (and undoubtedly with more to come), it is moving the frontline from the South China Sea to just offshore of a Quad/AUKUS country.

So what are we gonna do about it?

Mercifully, there are things that can be done to make sure this isn’t another disaster of the proportion that devastated the people of Solomons—and cost tens of thousands of American, allied and Japanese lives—the last time major powers fought it out in and around the island of Guadalcanal, upon which sits the capital of Solomons, Honiara.

To understand those viable paths forward, we need to look at how we got here.

HOW WE GOT HERE

Solomon Islands is made up of hundreds of islands, with a wide range of language groups.

It was colonized, with all that entails, including Islanders forced into slavery (known by the euphemism ‘blackbirding’) to work in Australia, Fiji and elsewhere.

Relations between locals and European settlers occasionally broke out into violence, including in 1927 when an Australian administrator was killed when trying to extract a headtax. A retaliatory punitive expedition killed many and left cultural scars that only began to heal last year though reconciliation efforts led by local leaders.

In World War Two, while still under the British, control over Solomons was deemed strategically essential by Japan. Tokyo launched Operation Mo, with the goal of taking the parts of Solomons and neighboring New Guinea that they deemed essential for cutting off Australia and New Zealand, and so securing the southwest Pacific.

One of the first places Japan targeted, in May 1942, was Tulagi, in Solomons. Remember that name.

The fightback against the Japanese was long, brutal and bloody, and included some of the most desperate battles of the Pacific, including the Guadalcanal campaign that lasted over six months (August 1942 – September 1943).

A key component of the success of the Allies was the Coastwatchers, essentially a field intelligence service made up of Solomon Islanders, Australians and other islanders that, among many duties, gathered information and performed rescue operations. Two Solomon Islander Coastwatchers, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa saved future U.S. President John Kennedy when his patrol boat went down after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer. We will come back to them.

Especially after the war, demands for self-government grew, predominantly led by the Maasina Ruru (‘relationship of siblings together’) movement based out of Malaita Province. Remember that province, we will also be heading back there—in Solomons, history beats rhythmically.

In response to the emancipation movement, the British launched the bluntly named Operation De-Louse and arrested leaders. Events then followed the usual unedifying path of the winding up of empire. After much effort, the country became independent in 1978. The first Prime Minister was Sir Peter Kenilorea. That name will also pop up again.

In the late 1990s, ‘ethnic tensions’ developed into a civil war with key groupings being the Malaita Eagle Force and the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army (also known as the IFM).

In 2000, through courage and sacrifice on all sides, the Townsville Peace Agreement was signed. Part Four of the Agreement required devolution of power and other essential political and economic adjustments to maintain peace. The signatories were the two main militias, the Guadalcanal and Malaita Provincial Governments and the Government of the Solomon Islands, then led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. We will definitely come back to him.

From 2003 to 2017, Australia led a Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which cost Australia billions, and in which attacks on RAMSI personnel resulted in one Australian officer being killed.

What didn’t happen during RAMSI was the implementation of Part Four of the Townsville Peace Agreement and the necessary devolution of power. In fact, as is a common by-product of an intervention – no matter how well intentioned – power ended up becoming more concentrated in the capital Honiara, as the main contact point for the Australians.

Similarly, Australians seemed to prefer to work with people who said what they wanted to hear, rather than people who told them what they needed to hear. They also preferred people who did what they were told to do (or at least appeared to) over people who stood up to them.

Malaitan political adivisor Celsus Irokwato Talifilu is not alone in thinking, as he wrote RAMSI “was an exercise in propping up a constitutional system that had never worked. The RAMSI mission attempted to distract the whole country from the fact that they were rebuilding the same arrangements that Solomon Islanders had already called out as unresponsive, disempowering, and destructive.”

As difficult as it may sound to Australians who honestly tried to do what they though best for the Solomons, and at great cost, the end result was reinforcing a highly centralized system that was compliant to stronger powers – an ideal vassal state.

CHINA COMES TO TOWN

When Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (yes, the same man who was in power when the Townsville Peace Agreement was signed) switched the Solomons from Taiwan to China in 2019, Beijing should have sent a ‘thank you’ note to Canberra. Much of the hard work was done. All China had to do was ‘capture’ the same small elite with large powers that Canberra had enabled. And China had the will, intelligence (in multiple senses) and budget to do it.

Guess where was the first place China tried to grab? Tulagi. Yes, they tried to lease the same island that was first on Japan’s hit list when it was trying to ‘secure’ the region. Luckily we are still in the phase of political warfare and locals fought off the attempt legally and politically.

But that didn’t stop Beijing. It’s been a straight line from Tulagi to the security agreement. Along the way, local leaders have tried over and over to warn anyone who would listen what was coming. The Leader of the Opposition Matthew Wale said he warned the Australian High Commissioner in August 2021 that Sogavare was negotiating a security agreement with China.

And Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr., son of the first Prime Minister of an independent Solomon Islands and himself a highly respected leader, told this newspaper in October 2021: “For me, personally, it is quite frustrating. I keep repeating myself to certain high commissioners but I’m told ‘we don’t want to upset the apple cart,’ as it were. Also that they want to work with the government of the day. But the government of the day doesn’t have the people’s best interests at heart—they are serving another master…For those of us who see this every day, it is as clear as day that is what is happening now… it could easily fall into violence.”

A month later there were anti-government riots, spurred in part by concerns over China’s influence over Sogavare and what that was doing to the economy and people of the Solomons.

The response from Canberra? It sent in security personnel, giving the impression that it was propping up a corrupt, pro-PRC government that had been on the verge of failing through a legitimate, constitutional vote of no confidence.

In doing that, not only did Canberra keep Sogavare in power, it gave an opening for the Chinese to kindly offer to send their own ‘police advisors’ as well, especially as the rioters had targeted (perhaps in a directed fashion) Chinatown. And that gave an opening for the security agreement which, Sogavare says, is just like the Australian one, so what are you gonna do about it?

Canberra got well and truly played by Beijing and its proxy Sogavare.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

The Western security community is clutching its pearls and saying ‘oh my! How scandalous!’ Meanwhile, the Solomon Islanders have solutions—including one they’ve had for 22 years—but no one listened. It’s called the Townsville Peace Agreement.

No one understands what is going on in the country better – or have more of a stake in not becoming a vassal state – than the Solomon Islanders, who have embedded in them stories of Australian slave ships, punitive British colonial administrators, global power struggles decided elsewhere that end up bombing their villages, freedom movements, civil war and more.

We need to listen to them. They brought themselves out of the last colonial period, rebuild their communities after the last major power conflict and forged peace out of the last civil war. And they tried to warn us what was coming this time around.

What are they saying now? Most don’t like what the engagement with China is doing to their country, and their political leadership. Talifilu wrote: “Our forests and people have been raped and pillaged by a logging monster that lives in China. While the legs and wings of the dragon are in Malaysia and the Philippines we know where its home cave is. We’ve watched it bribe and corrupt countless leaders, and we know it will never stop. The corrupt political elite in the Solomon Islands central government have become kleptocrats.”

“The nation is now an oligarchy, not a democracy. Now they are trying to steal our territorial sovereignty for private sale. The corrupt central government is no longer accountable to the people of the Solomons. This is not historic. This is happening right now.”

But they don’t want the same as usual from Australia and others. Talifilu  continues: “China, Australia, and New Zealand have all been trying to outdo one another in supporting the national-level political class, which is one of the most prominent antagonists in the historic Solomon Islands conflict.”

Highly respected Solomon Islander academic Dr Transform Aqorau, not a man prone to hyperbole, said: “It is time Australia stops funding the group as they cannot prop up the DCGA government and complain about the proposed security arrangements with China at the same time. They cannot have their cake and eat it too.”

Canberra and Wellington need to understand that, clearly, their policies haven’t been working and that, as they are now, they are not viewed on the ground as part of the solution. Apart from lingering colonial era distrust, there was no attempt to implement Townsville while RAMSI was in town, Australian intel must have information on corruption in the Solomons government that they aren’t sharing (and that could help the country clean up the mess), and the November deployment (however well meaning) was a mistake that opened the door even wider for China.

This is compounded by Canberra telling allies “don’t worry we have this covered”, and elbowing out others who might be able to help (and, in the process, bolster Australian security). If you don’t understand the problem – which is what local leaders who have correctly predicted what was going to happen are saying – maybe have the humility to consider you might not have the solution. And if you make yourself the center of a hub and spoke system, you better be sure the center can hold because, as of now, the gyre is widening.

For too long, the voices of the Pacific have been blocked by mediators. Remember Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, the two men who saved JFK? Kennedy invited them to his inauguration in 1961. British colonial administrators blocked the trip. Kenney’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, is confirmed as the next U.S. Ambassador to Australia. Hopefully, especially with the U.S. Embassy reopening in Solomons, others won’t again try to interpose themselves.

WHAT TO DO?

This doesn’t mean ‘regime change’. This doesn’t mean more ‘security operations’. This means giving and protecting the space for all those things that are antithetical to the Chinese Communist Party – and are so valued by the people of the Solomons – to take root: democracy, transparency, accountability, rule of law, free press and more.

Those who have offered correct predictions in the past are now saying the concern is that a ‘security’ situation will be created that will justify Sogavare arresting (more) political opposition and calling in the Chinese to pacify parts of the country. That would also include postponing the elections due in 2023, which Sogavare is likely to lose unless they are rigged.

What needs to happen to avoid that is the bolstering of democracy. As we saw with the Coastwatchers and the emancipation movement, no one cares about – and will fight for – the independence of the Solomon Islands more than the Solomon Islanders themselves. They just need the tools to do it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Invite the United Nations – or reputable local leaders – to oversee the implementation of the Townsville Peace Agreement (the agreement was deposited with the UNSC in 2000). Talifilu describes it as “an agreement to decentralize development, return Indigenous lands, and pass a new constitution to allow autonomy and good governance… The Townsville Peace Agreement is a massive opportunity missed for achieving a more united, more resilient, more independent, Solomon Islands.”
  2. Ensure free and fair election happen in 2023.
  3. Open investigations in, and do reporting on, corruption in the Solomons, including when the tracks lead back to places other than China (for example, it is widely known at least some of the Chinese bribery money given to politicians in the Solomons ends up in Australian real estate).
  4. Work towards desecuritization of all parties.
  5. Ensure that non-CCP backed projects, like the Tina River Hydropower agreement, are delivered in a timely fashion, bolstering human security and showing there are options.
  6. Democratize engagement by listening to the many respected local leaders even if – especially if – what they say makes you uncomfortable.
  7. Work with communities that want to work with you in ways that give them options. Soon after the U.S. announced a new Embassy, Western Province said they’d really like to partner with a U.S. State for development and exchange. That model can be developed and expanded.
  8. Support community education. Over a year ago, the Premier of Malaita Province, Daniel Suidani, was asking for support for a Festival of Democracy. There were no takers.

Basically, you know all those things we say we value? Democracy, transparency, accountability? Those are the weapons Solomon Islanders need to protect themselves and by extension they will be standing up – as they did the last time they were on the front line – for the whole region. As Talifilu wrote: “Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the USA need to help the people of Solomon Islands, not the oligarchs. When we are secure, those countries are secure. If you accommodate a thief in your neighbourhood, expect to lose your security.”

Solomon Islands got its name from a Spanish navigator who thought it metaphorically contained the riches of King Solomon. Since then, outsider after outsider, from the Spanish to now the Chinese, have looked at its mines and forests and positioning as being the defining characteristic of the country. It’s long past time it is realized that country also contains the wisdom of King Solomon—and that is much more valuable. So, what are we gonna do about it? Let’s ask them.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @CleoPaskal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Read in The Sunday Guardian

Issues:

China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power