April 29, 2022 | CDA Institute

China’s Agreement with Solomon Islands & Implications for Security in the Pacific

An Interview with Cleo Paskal
April 29, 2022 | CDA Institute

China’s Agreement with Solomon Islands & Implications for Security in the Pacific

An Interview with Cleo Paskal

Could you provide a brief overview of the domestic political situation in Solomon Islands?

To understand the situation, we need to look at three distinct strands: domestic Solomon Islands, China, and Australia. The complexities of domestic politics in Solomons goes back quite some time. That intersects with what China wants to do in the region, and what Australia has been doing in the region. Understanding how those three trajectories have developed separately, then braided together, is key to understanding how we got here.

In terms of domestic politics, Solomons is somewhat of a colonial construct, consisting of hundreds of islands, and many cultures, and languages. Inequities built into the structure of the country created tensions, resulting in a civil war that peaked in the late 1990s. The main belligerents were from the province of Malaita—the most populous province – and the island of Guadalcanal, which is home to the capital, Honiara.

The civil war ended in 2000 when all parties involved – including the central government, which at the time was headed by the same man who is Prime Minister at the moment, Manasseh Sogavare – agreed to the Townsville Peace Agreement. A key component of that agreement, Part IV, was the devolution of power. 

Economics and politics had been too centralized in Honiara, and the provinces felt that there wasn’t enough equitable distribution of development. Devolution of power would mean that the provinces would have much more control over their own issues – a dynamic familiar to Canadians. 

After the end of the civil war, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI)—led by an Australian peacekeeping force—was deployed in Solomons for over a decade. The cost of peacekeeping was quite high for Australia, in blood and treasure. But it never implemented Part IV of the agreement. So, the issue of inequitable distribution among the provinces, and the accompanying resentment, was never resolved. 

It was easier for RAMSI to deal with a somewhat compliant, centralized government in the capital that Canberra could use to administer and negotiate with the individual provinces. It was also convenient for the Australians to deal with people who told them what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear to establish real security. The result was an inadvertent creation of a centralized state that had vassal-like qualities.

When the government of the newly elected Prime Minister Sogavare switched Solomons’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019—without any real debate allowed in the country—it was apparent the now-centralized, softened system could easily be controlled through elite capture. The way RAMSI was deployed, and the fact that the underlying devolution issues were never dealt with, created a near-turnkey dynamic, whereby a softened state relatively quickly moved from one country to another. China then employed full-on political warfare—leveraging money, information warfare, and intel—and increasingly centralized and vassalized Solomon Islands to the point where it could garner a security agreement.

This mess took decades to create, three parties to action, and it isn’t what the majority of the people of Solomon Islands want. Many did not want the pivot to China and almost all don’t want the security agreement with China. PM Sogavare doesn’t represent the democratic will of the people of Solomon Islands, who want Part IV of the Townsville Peace Agreement, devolution of power, and strategic independence—which would align them more naturally with the West, from a position of strength, not vassalhood.

An initial draft of the China-Solomon Islands security agreement was leaked online last month. What were your key takeaways from this document? 

The switch to China and the new security agreement have been immensely unpopular domestically. Sogavare is a corrupt, pro-PRC, anti-democratic, increasingly authoritarian individual, who now has the backing of the Chinese state. 

The new security agreement looks like it’s from the 19th-century. A key element of the 19th-century colonial agreements was that the people of the colonial power had their own policing, and effectively, their own judiciary. A draft of the security agreement says that the Chinese, if allowed by the Solomon Islands government, will have the right to protect ‘Chinese people and interests’. This is problematic because the CCP considers any ethnic Chinese person with links back to China to be overseas Chinese.

Also, some in Solomons are on record as not wanting to have CCP-linked ‘interests’ operating in their areas. For example, the people and government of the province of Malaita don’t want any new licenses in their province going to CCP-linked businesses—partly because, as the provincial government wrote in the Auki Communique, China is systemically atheist, while Malaita respects freedom of religion, and are in fact, devout Christians. It’s authoritarian atheism versus freedom of religion and national choice. 

Many provincial leaders, Chiefs, and church groups are against the security agreement because they view it as targeting them and their independence. They see this as PM Sogavare getting an army to suppress internal dissent, that will work to protect the Chinese and himself, as their proxy. 

The women’s groups, in particular, have been outspoken against the security agreement because they are scared – they previously successfully defended against PRC encroachment on their rights, making them targets. Solomon Islands is quite a matrilineal country, and the women have a lot of influence. The reason why a Chinese-government linked company failed in its attempt to lease the strategically located Tulagi Island after the original switch in 2019, was because the women pushed back and said no.

Despite enormous internal dissent in Solomons against the PM, Australian partners seem to be appeasing Sogavare. Two Australian spy chiefs visited and didn’t meet with the Leader of the Opposition, the church groups, the Chiefs, or the women’s groups—they only met with Sogavare and his coterie. This reinforces his prestige. 

Interestingly, the recent American delegation’s visit, led by the National Security Council head for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, met with the Leader of the Opposition and church leaders, reportedly against the advice of the Australians. It was an important move and marked the U.S. as keen to engage with the whole of Solomons society, not just the government of the day.

Those who want to see the situation change, for the sake of Solomon Islands, and regional security, have very eager people on the ground in Solomon Islands, for whom this is a critical issue and will fight if given the chance – as we saw with the women of Tulagi. The weapons they need to fight are democracy, transparency, accountability, rule of law, and all of the things that we say that we believe in. Australia has not been facilitating that for them for whatever reasons, but the recent U.S. visit shows other approaches are now being tried.

Are there concerns that bilateral security agreements, such as the one between China and Solomon Islands, creates greater opportunity for the use of lawfare tactics? How can Solomon Islands promote their resilience? Is there room for liberal democratic nations to contribute?

This is the frontline of the clash between systems. Prime Minister Sogavare is seeking justifications so he can postpone the scheduled 2023 federal election. Now that Solomon Islands is embedded with China, it is adopting the characteristics of that state. 

A standard component of the PRC political warfare game plan in target countries is to identify and exacerbate existing internal divisions as well as create more internal divisions through mass-customized manipulation, including via social media. These social divisions can then escalate into violence, which can be used to justify an authoritarian response. These crackdowns make countries less popular with liberal democracies, which in effect, pushes them closer to China.

This is happening in Solomons. If Solomon Islands had a free and fair election, Sogavare would be gone, the security agreement would be abrogated, and there’s a good chance they would go back to Taiwan. If Solomons were to switch back to Taiwan though, it would be a huge loss of face for Xi domestically. The security agreement was a bold move by China. If the electorate responded by voting out Sogavare, that sets a bad precedent for someone who is trying to spread authoritarianism around the world. At the same time, if Sogavare were ousted from power, he could be prosecuted on corruption charges. The stakes are high for both leaders, which makes it all the more likely that they would try to instigate violence or create a false flag security situation, for example in Malaita, that ‘justifies’ a crackdown.

I can’t emphasize enough just how high the stakes are here. We shouldn’t be competing on Chinese terms. It shouldn’t be: ‘you’ve got a security agreement? We’ll give you a security agreement; you’re bribing people? We’ll bribe people! You’re threatening to invade? We’ll threaten to invade!’ We should compete by offering to support what is unique to liberal democracies – democracy, transparency, accountability, rule of law, and let the people of Solomons use those tools to liberate their own country.

Solomon Islanders who are on the ground, who are fighting the fight for their own country— their message is being suppressed by existing structures. The Australians were warned months in advance that a security agreement was coming down the pipeline and that message never got out. We need to give space to the people of Solomon Islands to come up with solutions—for example, they want Part IV of the Townsville Peace Agreement. They understand the situation better than anybody. They were colonized before, and they don’t want to be colonized again. 

The rapacious way in which the Chinese have conducted business in Solomon Islands has been extremely socially disruptive – people have been removed from their land. 

Solomon Islanders have been trying to be heard – and those attempts have been thwarted and distorted. Demonstrators wanted to meet with PM Sogavare when parliament reopened in November to express grievances, including how the Chinese were conducting business. During these peaceful demonstrations, the police used tear gas, which lead to panic and chaos. What we are hearing now is the demonstrators were redirected toward Chinatown. Some demonstrators became opportunistic, and Chinatown was looted and burned. That was widely reported. What is less known is that within a day, the community was cleaning up Chinatown, the mothers were making their sons return things that had been looted – they were getting it back under control themselves.

Meanwhile, there was talk of a vote of no confidence (which is how Sogavare lost power twice before), some police advised Sogavare to resign and MPs supporting Sogavare questioned their political future. There was an opening for change. But, at Sogavare’s request, Australia deployed a peacekeeping operation to ‘secure’ Solomon Islands, which Sogavare used to demonstrate to MPs that he had the support of Australia, as well as China. As a result, there was a failed no-confidence vote and Sogavare stayed in office.

Then, Sogavare invited in Chinese ‘police advisors’, which Australia couldn’t do anything about as they had already deployed themselves, signifying that the situation was serious enough to necessitate deploying troops and police. How could they object now that China was doing the same? Canberra got played.

Considering the geographic proximity of Solomon Islands to Australia, New Zealand, and Guam, does this raise any concerns for Five Eyes (FVEY) members? What should Canada be thinking about in terms of addressing China’s expansion into the Pacific?

To understand the geostrategic value of Solomon Islands, we have to understand WWII-era Japanese Imperial strategy in the region. 

China’s military is growing and modernizing at a rate the world has never seen during peacetime. The most important, and most visibly large component of that, is the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). To deploy its navy freely, China needs to break out of the first island chain –the string of island countries running roughly in parallel to the Chinese coast, from Japan, through Taiwan, then Philippines to Malaysia, and on down. 

China’s building of military bases on seized and artificial islands in the South China Sea allows it to project power forward, towards the chain. Beyond the first island chain, China has been engaging in political warfare to try and embed itself in other islands, so it can squeeze Taiwan from both sides. If there is a kinetic event over Taiwan, Beijing wants to ensure that resupply can’t come from the east and that it can deploy to the east as well. 

Around the same time that Solomons switched from Taiwan, the Pacific island country of Kiribati also switched from Taiwan to China. There has been discussion about China redeveloping an old WWII U.S military airstrip on Canton Island in Kiribati for ‘tourism’ – it just happens to be, in Pacific Ocean terms, relatively close to Hawaii. 

This kind of political warfare is happening across the Pacific Islands – Solomon Islands is the tip of the iceberg. China uses a similar strategy across the region—identifying divisions, buying up politicians, and setting things in motion. One set of tools it uses is its Three Warfare strategy – psychological warfare, media warfare, and lawfare. That includes buying up the media and promoting the narrative that ‘China’s rise is inevitable, you’re better off rising with our boat, rather than trying to cut yourself off and sink on your own’.

One area of focus has been the roughly west to east arc of island nations off the northern coast of Australia – Papua New Guinea, Solomons, Vanuatu, even France’s New Caledonia – if you can control this island chain, you can interdict Australia and New Zealand. You can cut them off. That was the Japanese playbook during WWII. In that context, Bougainville and Papua New Guinea are areas of concern that need to be watched very carefully. If Beijing gains control, that arc would create an island chain restricting Australia’s actions – it would replicate the first island chain blocking China but, in this case, it would be Australia blocked in. Some in Australia are fond of talking about the Pacific Islands as Australia’s backyard, but if the Pacific Islands can’t escape Beijing’s orbit, Australia will be in China’s backyard.

FVEY has been relying on Australia and New Zealand to provide accurate information and assessments on the islands—we wouldn’t be in this situation if that had happened. The Leader of the Opposition of Solomon Islands has been warning Australia since August that a security agreement with China was being negotiated. Nothing happened. The result of that doubt about Canberra and Wellington truly understanding what is going on in the region is that the UK, for example, has reopened three high commissions in Pacific Islands. If London thought things were going well with Australia and New Zealand on this front, it wouldn’t be investing in and opening up missions in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu. The Japanese, who are among the best-informed missions and most respected in the region, are opening a new embassy in Kiribati and a new consulate in New Caledonia. The failure of Australia and New Zealand in creating an environment where the Pacific Islands are prosperous and secure from the metric of their own people, has created an opening for China, and concern among allies.

Countries like Japan and India, who see this apparent mismanagement as a huge security risk to a free and open Indo-Pacific, will want to be less reliant on Australia; or bypass it, which would be a real shame, especially considering the costs Australia has incurred for standing up to China in other areas. However, it surely was not a good sign that Australian spy chiefs went to Solomons and did not speak to the Leader of the Opposition, the church groups, or women’s groups. It is not reassuring from a FVEY perspective, and, notably, the U.S. delegation made sure to do so during their short visit.

Could you speak to whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has influenced the security environment within the Indo-Pacific?

Both Ukraine and Afghanistan have been bad for the U.S. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan created an enormous security problem for India—a key QUAD member. They left behind $80 billion worth of weapons to Islamic extremists who have their targets set on India.  

One complaint you hear in the region is that India, Japan, and South Korea are still being charged normal rates for U.S weapons that are now being given to Ukraine for free. The U.S has said China is the biggest threat – these countries are on the frontline against China and want weapons to fight them. They know China is coming.

At the same time, Western sanctions are driving up fuel and food prices. Sri Lanka, where you’ve got food riots, is already in debt to China, and China is in a position to ask them for strategically important concessions. India is trying to offer Sri Lanka alternatives, but it is also being economically squeezed. 

The focus on Ukraine is legitimate. There is no question that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrible. However, it’s creating cascading effects across the Indo-Pacific which are reinforcing a perception that the West is not consistently responsible in its use of great power, and even its allies can be negatively affected by this. It is not that the U.S is not smart, but it is important to understand that this is how it is being perceived. When you are talking about Ukraine to an Indian, they have Afghanistan, China, Sri Lanka – they have all of these other concerns to consider as well.

To pivot to Canada, as both a G7 country and FVEY member, Canada is this almost invisible, yet large player in the rules-based international order. We have been living under the American security umbrella for a very long time. We are protected by three oceans, and we have one land border, with our main security provider. It has been easy for us to drop our guard because other people have been guarding us. 

That doesn’t mean that we’re not vulnerable, especially because this is the phase of Chinese warfare that is mostly political, not kinetic. Their goal is to ‘win without fighting.’ The character in Chinese that means ‘win’ in that phrase does not mean it as we would understand it in English, but rather, to force the other side to submit. The CCP model is to create a permanent state of submission of others. It doesn’t mean winning a kinetic battle against Canada—it’s Canada supporting Chinese policies at the UN, buckling on trade deals, giving access to energy markets, that sort of thing. Just because our kinetic perimeter has been guarded by others, doesn’t mean we are protected from political warfare. If we’re going to be more useful to ourselves and our allies, we need to have a greater awareness of the political warfare being waged by China, Russia, and others against Canada. We are, in some cases, losing this battle.

We could be working on transparency, accountability, and democracy issues with Solomon Islands if we wanted, but we are not. Whether we realise it or not, we are already immersed in a battle of political warfare, and we need to bolster, not just our perimeters, but the core of what it means to be Canadian. Otherwise, we will suffer the same fate as the Solomon Islands.

Cleo Paskal is a 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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