August 20, 2023 | The Sunday Guardian

In sign of weakness, pro-PRC Solomons PM avoids meeting US Congress members

PM Sogavare avoided meeting a US Congressional Delegation that was visiting the country. Not a single government minister met the two Members of Congress during their time in the capital, Honiara.
August 20, 2023 | The Sunday Guardian

In sign of weakness, pro-PRC Solomons PM avoids meeting US Congress members

PM Sogavare avoided meeting a US Congressional Delegation that was visiting the country. Not a single government minister met the two Members of Congress during their time in the capital, Honiara.

Honiara, Solomon Islands

No more pretending. Now we know. The Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, backed by the CCP, is in the SoWhatAreYaGonnaDoAboutIt? phase.

Earlier this week, PM Sogavare snubbed a U.S. Congressional Delegation (CoDel) that was visiting the country. Not a single government minister met the two Members of Congress (MoC) during their time in the capital, Honiara. That is, to say the least, very unusual.

By comparison, when the CoDel moved on to Papua New Guinea, in a visit of around 24 hours they met with the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Secretary of Defense and First Secretary to the President Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

But the snub was only part of the very telling CoDel visit, and it might even be a good sign. To understand, we need some background. You’ll see why.

What Is A CoDel?

Congressional Delegations are peculiar beasts. They can originate in either the Senate or House. As Congress is in recess in August, this month is CoDel season. They come out of the Committees, and are essentially field research trips.

In this case, the Solomons visit was part of a U.S. House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party CoDel. The Chair of that Committee wasn’t on the visit to Solomons, so he asked Committee member Dr Neal Dunn, Representative from Florida, to lead the delegation.

Congressman Dr. Neal Dunn

Dr. Dunn is a U.S. Army veteran who served as a trauma surgeon in the Pacific, and has visited many of the Pacific Islands, working to save lives of U.S. military members and locals in difficult conditions. As a Member of Congress, he has continued that work, this time through other means. When it comes to Solomons, that involved the case of Daniel Suidani.

Daniel Suidani

A former elementary school teacher, Suidani was elected to the Malaita provincial legislature in 2019 and became premier. When Sogavare switched the country’s recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Suidani’s government, backed by the traditional chiefs, blocked new CCP-linked companies and investment in the province, including the installation of Huawei towers.

Having seen how Chinese companies were operating elsewhere in the country, they were concerned about the effect if would have on their economy, society and politics.

And so began a multi-year process in which China (sometimes overtly through the Chinese Embassy), Sogavare and other PRC-proxies, worked to dislodge the popular Premier from power.

Finally, after years of effort and reportedly millions in payouts, they managed to get him out as Premier reportedly by lavish distribution of funds to certain members of the legislature. And then the federal government disqualified Suidani from his elected seat for failing to recognize Beijing’s definition of One China—effectively giving the CCP veto powers over the voters of Solomons.

Around the same time, Suidani had been invited to an indigenous environmental leadership event at the United Nations. He applied for a U.S. visa. And was declined.

Dr Dunn’s office put a case worker on it. Soon after Suidani’s reapplication was approved. While Suidani was in D.C., along with his policy advisor Celsus Talifilu, the two met Dr Dunn. Remember this connection.

Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen

The other Representative on the CoDel was Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, who is the Representative from American Samoa. She isn’t on the China Committee, but Members can join the CoDels of others with the permission of the Chair.

And it is likely the Chair was very pleased to have Rep. Radewagen along. She is the only elected U.S. federal office holder in the South Pacific and is indigenous to the region, including being a High Chief. Her father learned English late and, after service in the U.S. military, including in Solomons during World War II, he ultimately went on play key leadership roles in the Pacific Islands, including being Governor of American Samoa.

Rep. Radewagen grew up around many of today’s senior Pacific Islands leaders and is very influential with her colleagues on Pacific Island issues. She chairs a House Indo-Pacific task force and a veterans’ affairs task force.

When she heard about Suidani’s issues with the visa, she co-signed a bipartisan letter with Ed Case (a Democrat) of Hawaii asking State what was going on. And she also met Suidani and Talifilu in D.C. Bear in mind that doing this sort of thing doesn’t help with the usual Washington currency, campaign funding or votes. Dunn, Radewagen and Case did it because they thought it was the right thing to do.

Suidani, Sogavare and The CCP

How important is it to Sogavare and the CCP to marginalize Suidani? Very.

China’s key narrative in many parts of the world is: “the West has failed you, we can deliver economic growth for you like we did for the Chinese people”.

Like most good propaganda, there is a kernel of truth in that. The West has failed Solomons.

Infrastructure is a mess, health care is desperately lacking and, until recently in Solomons, sites of the World War II battles of Guadalcanal, Bloody Ridge and Iron Bottom Sound—where so many Americans died—there wasn’t even a US Embassy.

But what the Chinese propaganda leaves out is that the CCP’s economic model is fundamentally parasitic, and the wealth of Solomons will be sucked out to feed China’s growth, not theirs. And as the money flows out, the CCP system flows in.

Like a mosquito that injects a numbing agent into the blood stream so you don’t notice as you are being bitten and bled, the PRC is working to numb and neutralize the press, legal system and governance in Solomons so as to have more and more access to the lifeblood of the nation.

Suidani and Malaita were like a visible allergic reaction to the attack, and risked spreading those antibodies to the entire nation.

In other words, not only were they saying the Emperor has no clothes, they were saying the naked Emperor is covered in blood, including from ripping out and selling the organs of people of faith. And anyone doing his bidding is splattered as well.

Think like a mobster—given the CCP often acts like a vast criminal organization. Can you let that stand? Can you let a provincial leader stand in the way of your expanding empire? No. That courage might be catching, and that could be fatal. He needs to be publicly destroyed so no one else tries anything like that again.

So, after pro-PRC elements in Solomons government got Suidani out as Premier, and deprived him of his livelihood by taking his elected seat, the vice-president of the Solomon Islands-China Friendship Association, a putative journalist called Alfred Sasako, started writing stories that Suidani had been working with the US to put together a hit squad to kill Sogavare.

These fabrications seem to have been in part to set up for an arrest of Suidani—and remember he is now unemployed so even if a court case fails, it will have destroyed him and his family financially through court costs.

The new U.S. Embassy in Solomons doesn’t have consular services (we’ll get back to that), so Suidani went to Fiji to apply for his U.S. visa. The thinking in Sogavare’s camp seems to have been, the U.S. will deny his visa, he’ll come back to Solomons humiliated, and they can arrest him.

And his visa was denied. But then Dunn, Radewagen and Case got involved. Instead of coming back to Solomons at the mercy of the PRC and Sogavare, Suidani went to DC and reported first-hand what was going on in Solomons.

How mad was Sogavare (and one assumes the PRC)?

On 22 May, leaders from the Pacific Islands were in Papua New Guinea to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the morning and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the afternoon.

Sogavare posed for the group photo with PM Modi, but refused to be in the photo with Blinken. One person who was in the room said Sogavare told the other leaders he refused to be in the photo because the U.S. was harbouring Solomon “criminals”—making it clear that in his mind Suidani and Talifilu were already arrested, tried and found guilty, he just didn’t have his hands on them yet.

Back to the CoDel

So, on 14 August, two of the Members of Congress who played a role in depriving Sogavare and the CCP of their prey landed in Solomons.

As their commercial flight from Brisbane landed at Henderson Field—the airport defended by the U.S. Marines in the Battle of Bloody Ridge—two other things were happening at the airport at the same time.

The President of FIFA landed and a baton relay marking 100 days to the start of the Pacific Games left the airport for a tour of the country (the Pacific Games stadium is paid for by China, and the Games were the excuse Sogavare used to delay the election scheduled for this year. And is likely to use to bring in Chinese security forces who may stay on after the Games).
The President of FIFA got a police escorted motorcade into the capital, and met Sogavare later that day. The CoDel was stuck in the usual Honiara traffic.

But that’s what the CoDel was there to do—to see what life is like for Solomon Islanders. They spent their time listening to a wide cross section of locals, including discussions with opposition leaders, the media and civil society leaders.

They heard about the breakdown in local services, increasing constraints on freedoms and a desire for more, and more effective, U.S. engagement. There was an appreciation for the hard work of the new, small U.S. Embassy, but it was repeatedly noted that with no consular services, it makes working with the U.S. very hard indeed.

One surgeon from the hospital said that he had been offered a training scholarship to the U.S., but as there were no consular services in Solomons, he’d have to pay out of pocket to fly to Papua New Guinea and apply at the Embassy there, something he couldn’t afford. Dunn and Radewagen took notes.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy had been working on arranging a meeting with Sogavare or one of his ministers. The slot was the morning of the 15th. The CoDel went to the offices at the appointed time. No PM, no Ministers.

As it happened, 15 August was also the 40th anniversary of the founding of Malaita as a province and there were large celebrations in Honiara. The new pro-PRC government in Malaita explained at the event that the province was signing a sister agreement with a Chinese province (word on the street is all the premiers are heading to China soon where many will sign similar agreements).

Dunn and Radewagen attended the celebrations, and visited the families of Suidani and Talifilu, physically showing their support for the people of Solomons. All the people of Solomons. That is the real headline of this trip, not who didn’t meet the CoDel, but who the CoDel made the effort to meet. And you can be sure people on the ground noticed.

The Snub

The CoDel did what a good CoDel is supposed to do. Find out what conditions are like on the ground. The snub was part of that—and in its way, very helpful. If they were worth snubbing, it means at some level Sogavare and the CCP are scared of them, and they are doing something right. One person’s snubbing is another’s avoiding.

While the snub will please Sogavare’s masters in Beijing, it will not go down well in the Pacific family, especially as one of the snubees, Amata Radewagen, is one of their own. Which is another thing the CoDel saw—there is no longer any “winning over” of people like Sogavare.

They owe their continuation to the CCP, and to CCP money. They’ve burned through the real currency of the Pacific Islands, social capital, opting instead for financial capital. If they fail to serve the CCP well, the money will dry up and they will be replaced, leaving them with nothing. And they know it.

Above all, CoDel learned what Solomon Islanders know. As Dr Dunn said after the trip, “Like a viper slithering around its prey, the CCP is coiling around Solomon Islands in hopes of tightening their grip on the Indo-Pacific region.”

Thanks to the snub, there is no ignoring it anymore. The question now is, SoWhatAreYaGonnaDoAboutIt?

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for 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.


China Indo-Pacific