Alexandria, VA., US: Well, that didn’t take long. Almost exactly two years ago, in September 2019, the Solomon Islands, a country of around 650,000 people in the South Western Pacific, switched recognition from Taiwan to China.
It was a controversial move domestically. Several local leaders expressed concern that the country might become more unstable and authoritarian as a result of a projected dramatic increase in PRC involvement in the country. But even they probably didn’t guess how quickly it might happen.
Already politics are being distorted, Chinese companies are causing severe disruptions, and fragile political and social structures are fragmenting. Three events from the past month are telling.
PRC MONEY FOR 39 OF 50 MPS
The most eye-catching event was a25August document signed by the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare.
It read, in part: “At the recent meeting of the full Caucus, it was agreed that the remaining balance of the PRC CDF [Constituency Development Funds] assistance in respect of the 2020 fiscal year held at the ESCROW Account jointly operated by the Solomon Islands Government and the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China be paid out as additional NDF [National Development Funds] to support constituencies [sic] COVID-19 economic recovery efforts. […] Attached herewith is a schedule outlining the constituencies that will benefit from the Additional NDF at a level of $200,000 per constituency. […] The PRC Embassy have been consulted on this additional support and have consented to the release of this assistance”.
That was followed by a list of 39 of the Parliament’s 50 MPs, all supporters to one degree or another, of the Prime Minister. The eleven left out were, by and large, less supportive.
Constituency Development Funds are essentially legal slush funds given to MPs to, theoretically, spend on their constituency. The Taiwanese funded them as well. However, previously (at least as known publicly), all MPs received them, not just the favoured few.
The number 39 also raised eyebrows, and suspicions. One close observer noted that it is the number, with a small buffer, required to change the Constitution. Sogavare is on record as wanting to move the next election from 2023 to 2024, something that would require a constitutional change. And who knows what else he and/or Beijing would like to “adjust”?
One of the banes of supporters of Beijing is Malaita. Malaita is the most populous province in the Solomon Islands. It hasn’t been pillaged of its resources, is traditionally fiercely independent, and is the centre of some of the strongest resistance to “the switch” from the Taiwan to the PRC.
Also in August, a petitionwas submitted raising concerns about the relationship between the PRC, the central government and Malaita Province. The content of the petition describes and distills a process seen all along the Belt and Road, and beyond. Including:
* Lack of consultation with the local population: the central “government failed to consult in any way to secure the consent of our people of Malaita regarding the diplomatic switch from the ROC to the PRC”.
* Use of the PRC doctrine of the Three Warfares (psychological, media and lawfare) to apply pressure: the “government continually harasses the [local] government of Malaita through individuals, the media and even through the abuse of legal process”.
* Deployment of “overseas Chinese” to take over all possible sectors of the economy: the “government has facilitated an influx of Chinese labour under the guide [sic.] of PRC funded projects instead to ensure jobs for Solomon Islanders. This leading to the continued loss of labour and business which are taking over all business activities in the Solomon Islands resulting in the highest un-employment rate in Solomon Islands history.”
* Seeming economic punishment for not giving in to the PRC: the “Government through its Minister of Communications and Aviation intends to bring or already had brought to Cabinet a paper seeking to withdraw all SIRAP World Bank Project from Malaita Province.” They ask that the government “Refrain from weaponing infrastructure development in Malaita and specifically keep the World Bank SIIRAP Project on Malaita province alive according to the World Bank procurement guidelines”.
The petition also brings up the 2000 Townsville Peace Agreement, signed when Sogavare was also in power, which committed the central government to give Malaita more autonomy. It states that has that yet to happen.
Rather, it seems that—partially due to pressure from Beijing—the central government is trying to exert more control over Malaita to quell anti-China dissent and gain access to its resources for Chinese companies.
This is extremely dangerous as the last Solomons civil war is still a fresh memory.
LOCAL LEVEL INTIMIDATION
Again in August, at the local level, Israel Trevor Sibia, a Pastor from Guadalcanal—another restive region—posted a video expressing his concern at the economic and social disruption in his community caused by newly arrived foreigners (one can guess from where).
The local MP lodged a complaint against him, reportedly stating that the video was racist. The police went to his home, reportedly prompting his wife to say, “oh are we a communist country now?!”
Maybe not. Yet. But the added pressures being put on the Solomons by Beijing in just two years are already turning social and economic cracks into fissures that risk bursting the country apart—potentially justifying increasingly repressive centralized control.
Of course, China probably doesn’t mind—in fact it generally benefits when countries in which it has a toe-hold in become unstable,opening the way for more authoritarianism. Democratic countries often respond by shying-away, and an increasingly isolated local government, concerned about its own survival, become even more dependent on the PRC.
The last time there was a civil war in the Solomons, it was Australia that led a peacekeeping mission. This time, if things go bad, China could generously offer to come to the rescue, perhaps with the support of those grateful 39 MPs.
The way back from the ledge requires proper engagement from partners such as the United States and Australia—and if it can, India. The Solomons wouldn’t have been so tempted by the PRC’s offer in 2019 in the first place, had those relationships (and others) been more effective.
Now, rather than appeasing Beijing’s proxies for fear of rocking the boat (a boat that is sailing towards the South China Sea), partners need to take a close look at the sort of things the Malaita petition brings up, and support citizens who want to see a stable, secure, cohesiveand free Solomon Islands.
But it needs to be fast. The cracks are starting to show, other countries in the region (and beyond) are going through similar near take-overs, and many are watching to see what will happen in the Solomons.
No one wants yet another avoidable tragedy—a people dispossessed in their own land and at each other’s throats,while Beijing provides its version of security and carts off the spoils. But if those fighting for their country aren’t supported, it will happen. Again. And again.
Cleo Paskal is a The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.