May 13, 2024 | The National Interest

How China is Winning the Solomon Islands

Since 2019, Beijing has spent a considerable amount of money and effort setting up its position in the Solomon Islands and openly assisting in the crushing of dissent.
May 13, 2024 | The National Interest

How China is Winning the Solomon Islands

Since 2019, Beijing has spent a considerable amount of money and effort setting up its position in the Solomon Islands and openly assisting in the crushing of dissent.

April 17 was election day in the Solomon Islands, a country of around 750,000 people northeast of Australia that is best known to most Americans as the site of the World War II battles of Guadalcanal, Iron Bottom Sound, and Bloody Ridge. 

The outcome of the vote is still being decided, but so far, it is shaping up as a coup for China against the will of the people—one that will have major strategic implications for the United States. 

It is a case study of how Beijing is expanding its influence to the point of control throughout the world—and the West is not just watching it happen. It is helping. 

On April 17, Solomon Islanders voted in two elections. They chose their representatives for the national and provincial parliaments.

Solomon Islanders voted overwhelmingly for change. At the national level, the government of former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is deeply unpopular. As Professor Anne-Marie Brady, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and professor at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, pointed out, “76 percent voted against Sogavare’s OUR Party in the 2024 election, and they only [won] fifteen seats” in the fifty-member national parliament.

However, once Solomon Islanders voted, power moved from the people to the members of parliament. Members pick the prime minister (at the national level) and the premier (at the provincial level) from among their own. In a rough U.S. analogy, imagine if the House of Representatives voted among themselves to see which member would be President of the United States or if state legislators chose their governor. On top of that, there are multiple political parties and independents.

Parliamentary Musical Chairs

The choice of prime minister was closely watched around the world. In 2019, Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, presided over a security deal with the PRC that could allow for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces to deploy in the country, and agreed to the installation of over 160 Huawei telecom towers. On a July 2023 visit to China, Sogavare talked about being “back home.”

Meanwhile, Sogavare worked in a building whose construction was financed by American taxpayer money in memory of the Americans who died in the war. Furthermore, Sogavare even skipped the commemorations of the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Much of the reporting on the recent election hinged on his success or failure. On the day of, his party fared poorly, and he was narrowly reelected. When he stepped aside as the prime ministerial candidate in favor of Jeremiah Manele, it was reported that “Australian officials were relieved.” As Manele later gained support from enough members to claim the premiership, Australian media announced “A new era for the Solomon Islands.”

This showed a serious misunderstanding of both the Solomons’ politics and how PRC influence operations work. Beijing doesn’t just back one horse. It fills its stables with as many docile rides as possible. The new prime minister, Manele, was foreign minister under Sogavare and was a key point person for much of the engagement with China, including the switch from Taiwan. Nor has Sogavare gone away. He is now the Finance and Treasury Minister. Indeed, much of the old gang never left.

In his first speech, Manele discussed prioritizing legislation to facilitate mining, logging, and the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs)—all PRC priorities. SEZs are a particular security concern as they can be used to bypass customs, immigration, employment, and environmental regulations.

As Professor Brady put it, in spite of Solomon Islanders voting for change, Sogavare’s party is “now back in power, in control of all the key portfolios. The voting process may have been relatively free and fair, but the voting negotiations after it were far from it.”

Indeed, for those who care about the democratic will of the people or about forestalling the PRC’s ability to degrade the Solomons’ sovereignty, perhaps fatally, this is possibly one of the worst outcomes as many external experts are in full “nothing to see here mode,” and the fight isn’t even over.

With the national government firmly in the hands of the same old gang—who had also spent the past few years ensuring as much of the press, judiciary, police, and other levers of the state as possible were under their control—the battle for provincial premiers continues.

The most consequential one is the province of Malaita. It is the Solomons’ most populous province and, since the switch to China, has been the epicenter of the debate over the economic, cultural, and environmental implications of aligning with Beijing. 

Malaita Holds Back the CCP Flood

In 2019, the Malaitan parliament chose a former schoolteacher, Daniel Suidani, as its premier. After Sogavare switched to China, Suidani’s Malaita Province Government (MPG), backed by the traditional chiefs, issued the “Auki Communiqué” explaining why they didn’t want CCP-linked businesses operating in the province. It is one of the most precise, principled, and courageous statements put out by any government about the Chinese Communist Party.

One reason the provincial legislature cited in its declaration was that it “acknowledges the freedom of religion as a fundamental right and further observes the entrenched Christian faith and belief in God by Malaitan… peoples and therefore rejects the Chinese Communist Party—CCP and its formal systems based on atheist ideology”. Also “MPG specifically observed the need to be free from unwarranted interference of persons and therefore reject any notion of a police state.”

What happened next shows the lengths China will go to eradicate dissent even in other nations, often with the willing compliance of its proxies.

Crushing the Opposition

Suidani suffered a life-threatening health condition requiring treatment outside the country. Being an honest politician in a developing country, he couldn’t afford it. The national government let it be known that he’d get the funding if he dropped his opposition to CCP operations in Malaita. He refused—literally saying he’d prefer to die than take Chinese money. The president of Taiwan ended up stepping in on humanitarian grounds and getting him to Taiwan for the needed treatment.

China and its proxies pressed on, flooding Malaita with money and engaging in disruptive political warfare. After several attempts, the PRC and its proxies deposed Suidani and his government through a no-confidence motion. Then Sogavare’s government disqualified Suidani from his elected seat for not recognizing the “One China” Policy—effectively giving Beijing a veto over Solomon Islander voters. 

One of the new PRC-backed government’s first acts in Malaita was to “axe” the Auki Communiqué. To drive home the point, Huawei survey crews arrived in Malaita, and the new premier headed off to China.

The message was clear: stand in China’s way, and your government will fall, and you will lose your job—and Beijing will get what it wants anyway. 

Meanwhile, Australia did nothing—and the U.S. even denied Suidani a visa when he was invited to attend a United Nations event on indigenous environmental issues. It took Congressional letters to ensure he could attend. 

Remember the Voters?

In the April elections, Suidani was elected in a landslide, and the pro-PRC premier who replaced him—and most of his supporters—lost their seats.

The provincial assembly’s vote for the premier is on May 14. At first, it looked like Suidani would have the numbers. Then, according to Suidani, his supporters started getting calls: “telling them if they join the [opposition] they will be given projects for their wards and also they will be receiving [around US$35,000] each member.”

The national government is in a position to deliver on both carrots and sticks. The minister who disqualified Suidani from his seat in the last parliament is now Minister for Rural Development—perfectly placed to financially punish Malaita for the “wrong” choice and reward it for the “right” one.

It would be like Washington telling Texas, “You better chose a governor we like or forget about any federal government programs, and we will also do our best to block any international investment and unseat the person you chose.”

There have also been fierce political warfare attacks on Suidani personally, causing him to withdraw from the contest for premier so as not to distract from his group’s message.

So, imagine you are a member of the Malaita legislature. You were voted in because the people want change. But there are no jobs. The roads and school buildings are terrible. Your people have to walk for miles to get to an ill-equipped health clinic. Relatives are dying in childbirth. And it appears nobody anywhere will help—not even providing moral support. What do you do?

We will find out on Tuesday.

What Does This Mean?

If the pro-PRC national government gets its chosen person in place in Malaita, we will see a rapid and unopposed acceleration of the transformation of the Solomons into a power projection base for China. The Huawei towers that Suidani’s government blocked in Malaita will go up, joining the network that is being set up in the rest of the country, allowing for increased surveillance capabilities. China is eyeing more ports as well and may establish poorly monitored SEZs, furthering Chinese existing commercial domination and attendant political influence. Chinese police—already in the country—will expand their presence. Eventually, the PLA itself may one day be a regular feature in the Solomons.

Another thing to watch is that the national government has until the end of the year to set up an assembly to consider revising the constitution. Then, if the pro-PRC national government can get thirty-three of the fifty members to support it, it can change the constitution, in which case all bets and nominal legal restraints are off.

Apart from being a tragedy for the people of the Solomons, it would mean that another strategically vital country, which played an important role in World War II, is firmly under Beijing’s control.

What is the United States Doing?

Recently, Secretary Blinken described the approach in the Pacific Islands as: “We’re not asking you to choose, we want to give you a better choice.” However, it is very unclear what choice is being offered at all. From the point of view of a member from Malaita about to make their choice for premier, the United States is MIA.

Often in the Solomons, the United States defers to Australia. So, what is Australia doing? Canberra is warmly welcoming the new national government. As one Australian expert told Australian Broadcasting: “[Manele] will definitely lower the temperature and maybe even open the possibility for Australia and China working together a little bit more in the Pacific region.” Australia also took pride in sending security forces to the Solomons before the elections.

How was that perceived on the ground? According to Suidani: “Security is quite tight, giving people fear. They are maybe [some security personnel] from Australia—I’ve seen some white people in uniform here…[People] always say the government treats us like we are criminals… they treat Malaitans like we are not people with culture, respect—more like we are treated like a province where more criminals come from.”

Indeed, it was the arrival of Australian security forces that likely kept Sogavare in power when he was on the brink of resigning in 2021 following popular unrest.

What could they be doing instead? One thing that would help a lot is to hit China at the source of its power—corruption. Rather than send a hundred soldiers, get five treasury lawyers to look at the illegal money flows in and out of the Solomons.

Excellent reporting by Solomon Islander journalists uncovered Sogavare’s property empire linked to questionable funding. A French bank is reportedly involved. Sogavare is now Finance Minister. Perhaps this is something allies who tout democracy, transparency, and accountability ought to look into.

Since 2019, China spent a considerable amount of money and effort setting up its position in the Solomons and openly assisting in the crushing of dissent. It planned carefully for the elections. It knew there would be election observers and that the West was focused on the shiny object of Sogavare, who was sacrificed and given a nice sinecure.

Or, as Brady put it: “The 2024 Solomon Islands election was a travesty of democracy. The people voted for change, but the election has been stolen from them.”

Beijing has deployed and refined this playbook since backing Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If it wins in Malaita and the Solomons, it will have another trophy to show prospective clients in other countries the value of being in Beijing’s good graces.

This is how the United States is losing the Pacific.

Cleo Paskal is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on X: @CleoPaskalCol. Grant Newsham (USMC—Ret.) is the former U.S. Marine Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the author of  When China Attacks: A Warning to America. Follow him on X: @NewshamGrant.


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