April 16, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

White House finally awakens to PRC capture of Solomon Islands

Free and fair election could result in a new government that not only abrogates the security deal but switches back to Taiwan. That would be a serious loss of face for Xi Jinping, giving ammunition to his domestic enemies, and could lead to a politically weakened Sogavare being more exposed to prosecution.
April 16, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

White House finally awakens to PRC capture of Solomon Islands

Free and fair election could result in a new government that not only abrogates the security deal but switches back to Taiwan. That would be a serious loss of face for Xi Jinping, giving ammunition to his domestic enemies, and could lead to a politically weakened Sogavare being more exposed to prosecution.

Within days, Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, and Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, will visit Solomon Islands, a country of around 700,000 people, in the Southwestern Pacific. It will be one of the highest level American visits to Solomons, since 80 years ago, this August, US Marines landed on Guadalcanal.

This time, the Americans are hoping to dislodge an expansionist Asian power that embedded itself through political warfare, rather than through kinetic warfare. Though the kinetic threat is lurking in the background.

The intensity and urgency of the visit was shaped by the leaking of a draft security agreement between China and Solomon Islands that has the potential to give the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) yet another “base in everything but name”, as they have with Gwadar, and are trying to secure in Sri Lanka, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere.

Add this to declared bases in Djibouti and the South Sea China—both locations China initially promised not to militarize—and it’s easy to see why there is concern across the Indo-Pacific about the agreement.

Additionally, with Chinese political warfare gains in Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, and growing but quiet positioning in Bougainville and New Caledonia, the PLA is essentially putting pieces in place to create its own version of a first island chain to hem in and isolate Quad/Aukus/Five Eyes member Australia.

For the US to succeed in its mission of giving Solomon Islands a path to the future that doesn’t involve it becoming another piece in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global game of Go, it helps to learn from what worked in the past, and to understand and avoid previous mistakes.

WHAT WORKS

During the brutal battles in Solomons during World War II, the knowledge, support and sacrifice of Solomon Islanders, who were ready to fight and die for their own sovereignty, was essential. That spirit is still there. Across the country key components of Solomon Islands society have come out against the deal.

To understand why, it helps to think of this not as a security deal between China and Solomon Islands, but between the Chinese Communist Party and the deeply unpopular and corrupt Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. The provisions in the draft deal for China to provide assistance in “maintaining social order” are seen as Sogavare being able to call on the PLA to suppress anyone who stands in his—or his CCP patron’s—way.

A main target is the country’s most populous province, Malaita. When Sogavare unilaterally switched Solomons from Taiwan to China in 2019, the Government of Malaita and the Malaita High Council of Chiefs issued the Auki Communiqué. In part, it stated the Malaita Provincial Government “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business Licenses to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, adviser to Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani, recently described how he saw Chinese businesses operating in Solomons: “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.”

Malaita’s Premier Suidani, later proved how serious he was about not engaging with the CCP. He fell ill and required medical treatment outside the country. Being an honest politician, he didn’t have the funds required for treatment in Australia. Sogavare’s government stalled on providing him with support, saying it would be offered if he rescinded his objections to China’s activities in Malaita. He refused—effectively saying he’d rather die than take CCP money directly or indirectly.

In the end, through the humanitarian interventions of Prof M.D. Nalapat in India and President Tsai of Taiwan, Premier Suidani received the treatment he needed in Taiwan. When he returned to Solomons, Sogavare’s proxies in the province tried to engineer a vote of no confidence to take him out. Widespread ground level support for the premier thwarted the attempt. But Sogavare and the CCP haven’t given up on taking out the irritant.

And the people of Solomon know it.

Leader of the Opposition Matthew Wale wrote that “Malaita perceives this deal as targeted at it—the secrecy does nothing to remove those fears. Quite the contrary, the secrecy is perceived as an escalation by Prime Minister Sogavare in his struggle with Malaita. How this deal will be used on the Malaita situation has direct implications on all provinces in Solomon Islands and governance broadly.”

Other elected leaders have their own concerns, including the Premier of Western Province, Hon Christian Burley Mesepitu, who stated: “I am very concerned with how this new security agreement with China will affect our existing bilateral arrangements with Papua New Guinea in terms of policing and security on our western border. These arrangements directly affect my people in the Shortland Islands which is why my government is deeply concerned.”

He also said that Western Province would not allow its land and assets or people to be used in support of the security deal.

Also against the deal are powerful women’s groups. Solomons has strong matrilineal elements, including around land holdings, and it was women who were key to fending off China’s first attempt at a “soft base” in the country.

Shortly after the switch in 2019, a Chinese company tried to lease Tulagi, a strategically located island that was the British colonial headquarters leading up to World War II, and the site of the first Japanese attack on Solomons. The women landholders staved them off.

This time around, women’s groups are equally clear on their stand. Ruth Liloqula, a member of the Solomon Islands National Council of Women (SINCW) and executive officer of Transparency Solomon Islands (TSI), said: “We are concerned because when you look at the draft agreement, it mentioned ‘social order’. But the social order is our sovereignty. It should not be given to any other country to do it for us. Because if you do that, you are selling the sovereignty of this country by giving them the very function that belongs to the state.”

She added: “The security deal is not in the best interest of the country. So for the sake of the nation, Sogavare must cancel it. He and his government are abusing their powers in pursuing the security deal.”

Many, many others across the political spectrum and civil society have come out against the deal.

All this to say, as with 80 years ago, there is no lack of strong, brave Solomon Islanders willing to fight for their sovereignty.

AVOIDING PAST MISTAKES

So, why haven’t they been able to fight more effectively for their country? Why does the US have to send in the diplomatic version of the Marines?

For years, from a Western perspective, the “strategic” lead on Solomons was Australia. And in the past few weeks, Canberra has been going into overdrive trying to show it still is. It sent its “spy chiefs” on a very public mission to meet with Sogavare. It dispatched a government minister to meet with him even though it’s election season. And it’s announced funding that will run through Sogavare’s government.

Have you spotted the major flaw? It’s all based on doubling down on Sogavare. It entrenches his position domestically, and isolates and undermines those who are against the deal, including popularly elected leaders, women’s groups, church groups, and more.

It is a fundamental misreading of the dynamics. Sogavare is unpopular domestically, which is one reason why he is trying to postpone the 2023 elections. At the same time, China’s position in Solomons is now fully exposed.

Free and fair election could result in a new government that not only abrogates the security deal but switches back to Taiwan. That would be a serious loss of face for Xi Jinping, giving ammunition to his domestic enemies, and could lead to a politically weakened Sogavare being more exposed to prosecution.

Both Sogavare and Xi need the relationship to continue, and both would benefit from the perception of a breakdown of “social order” that triggers the security agreement and gives reason to postpone elections.

At the same time, it is not as if Sogavare has a warm spot for Australia. According to Wale: “Prime Minister Sogavare has long held grievances against Australia and longed for the day he would extract revenge. That day has arrived, and he has gladly thrust his sword into Australia’s back. China is only too happy to oblige Prime Minister Sogavare, there is a meeting of minds on this.”

Focusing on Sogavare is a mistake. Everyone I’ve quoted in here is a prominent Solomon Islander who has deep understanding of their country, knows the stakes involved and is ready to fight. None of the Australian delegations met with any of them.

And it seems as though they’ve been ignored for years.

Remember Premier Suidani, who went to Taiwan for medical care? On the way there, and back, he spent weeks in Australia in transit. No Australian official met with him—a popularly elected leader who put his life on the line to stand up to the CCP—to find out what was going on in the most populous province in Solomons.

Wale said he told the Australian High Commissioner in August that there was a Chinese security deal in the works.

Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr., former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “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.”

If Australians, or anyone, including the other Quad partners, had spoken with any of the people mentioned here, or the many other Solomon Islanders worried about the direction their country is taking, they would not only have found willing partners with shared values, but gained valuable insight into the situation on the ground. And improved their own security.

As Talifilu said: “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 neighborhood, expect to lose your security.”

US DELEGATION

It is a good sign that the US knows it needs to show up in person, and has announced it will be opening an Embassy in the country. Hopefully the US will, as they did 80 years ago, join forces with those in the country who share their vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and who are willing to fight for it.

The situation is being watched closely, including in other Pacific Island Countries. If locals concerned about China aren’t listened to properly now, some may see incentive in following the path of the Solomons, not because they want more China, but because they want more US.

As Tongan strategic analyst Tevita Motulalo put it: “It’s too bad the only way to get cooperation is to stake a claim for the adversary. Should Tonga have allowed the redevelopment of the Chinese (naval) port? Looks like the only incentivized approach is to play dirty. This security-state policy frameworks is based on scaring the sh*t out of Washington to take action, out of fear, but not out of appreciation of their own legacies. That’s the message given here to everyone: MORE Chinese in order for any US attention!”

Hopefully, that message will change, with a new approach built not on the failures of the past, but on the successes—building on the ties created fighting for freedom and forged in blood 80 years ago.

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.

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Issues:

China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power