Sogavare has introduced a Bill to postpone elections. Reaction on the ground is seething. Likely Sogavare and his backers in Beijing don’t mind violence so they can activate the China security deal.

 

On 8August, dignitaries, including US Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, gathered for a dawn ceremony on Bloody Ridge in Solomon Islands to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the brutal battle for Guadalcanal. Kennedy’s father, future President John F. Kennedy, almost died during the campaign—his life saved by two Solomon Islanders.

Absent from the ceremony was Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. He was busy doing something that could, once again, turn Solomons into a dangerous ground zero in the Pacific.

Being an avid reader of this paper, of course you knew it was coming.

For those who haven’t been following along at home, here’s a quick recap.

Beijing has studied the importance of the vast Pacific Islands region—for instance, you need to be able to hold it, or deny it to others, to take Taiwan. It also knows the cost and difficulty of taking it by force, as those on Bloody Ridge remembered.

So, Beijing has worked on its consolidation of the region by using political warfare to “island hop” beyond the first island chain and set up political, economic and, increasingly, force-capable forward operating sites across the region.

Its goals for the region were made explicit in its proposed “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” and supported by the “China-Pacific Island Countries Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development (2022-2026)”.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo called them, in a letterto other Pacific Island Country (PIC) leaders: “the single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.”

The agreement wasn’t signed, but it’s unlikely China thought it would be. It was a way of flushing out opponents (for example President Panuelo), identifying compliance (for example the several PIC leaders who signed secret bilateral deals that reportedly contain elements of the larger “Vision”), and seeing if the “Free World” was going to do anything about it.

The response was largely the diplomatic equivalent of rending of cloth and gnashing of teeth, though the US did make a series of announcements, including that it would be opening new embassies. And Congress quickly backed the move in a bicameral, bipartisan bill designed to support opening the missions.

However, the efforts would have resonated more in the region if the US was taking advantage of access it already has. For example, the US currently doesn’t have Ambassadors appointed to several of its existing PIC Embassies, including Fiji, which NSC Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell identified by name as a US “hub” for the region.

China and its proxies don’t seem to be deterred, or much perturbed, and are forging ahead on their plans. As we saw this week in Solomon Islands.

Given you are a regular reader of this newspaper, you will not be surprised to hear that last week pro-PRC Solomon Islands PM Sogavare put forward a bill to postpone elections. You had read here, in these pages back in September 2021, that he was putting in places the pieces he needed to do just that—with Beijing’s help.

We reported that, using PRC-donated “Constituency Development Funds”, PM Sogavare’s government had given money to 39 of the 50 MPs in Parliament: “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.”

Then, in our 23 April 2022 interview, you read that respected Solomons political leader Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr. said there were more indications it was coming: “I can see from the [government] budget that it’s clear the government is not taking the election seriously, because they haven’t put adequate budget aside for the preparations for next year’s elections. For me, that is the biggest indicator. I was looking out for those numbers. And I don’t see them.”

Sogavare’s“reason” to put off democracy was also reported here.  Over a month ago, we wrote: “The excuse he’s giving to postpone elections is Solomons is hosting the Pacific Games in 2023 and the country doesn’t have enough for both the Games and an election.”

Well, as of last week, it’s official, Sogavare introduced the Bill to postpone elections because of the Games.

Reaction on the ground is seething—triggering talk of a resurrection of the Civil War that caused so much pain to the country.

Likely Sogavare and his backers in Beijing don’t mind violence—and perhaps are even hoping for more “unrest” so they can activate the China security deal, and have an even better excuse to hold off on elections (that Sogavare is likely to lose) for even longer.

Sogavare has been preparing for just that scenario. There are Chinese “police trainers” in the country and he publicly thanked the Chinese Ambassador for “the 22 police vehicles, 30 motorcycles, two police water cannons, eight police drones and advanced CPP (close personal protection) equipment, which are valued at $SBD22 million ($3.97 million)”.

Given there is no kinetic external threat to Solomons, this seems to only make sense if you are going to war with your own people.

If that happens, the unrest could spread to other areas. The situation is dangerous.

Given the international community has had almost a full year to prepare, what has the response been?

Mostly: “we are concerned”, “don’t look at me”, “what are we supposed to do—it is a sovereign country”.

Well, let’s start with basics. The Constitution of Solomon Islands opens with: “We the people of Solomon Islands, proud of the wisdom and the worthy customs of our ancestors, mindful of our common and diverse heritage and conscious of our common destiny, do now, under the guiding hand of God, establish the sovereign democratic State of Solomon Islands”.

This is an attempted coup against the people of Solomon Islands. Sogavare is trying to steal their sovereignty. He is trying to turn his country into a clone of China, by taking control of media, signing secret security deals, using bribery to change the Constitution and preparing to instigate and then crush dissent.

If you care about sovereignty, the people of Solomons must be able to vote in 2023.

Here are some ideas for how that can happen, many coming from Solomon Islanders themselves.

* Pacific Island Countries complain that they are pawns in great power games and they want “agency”. This is their moment to step up. Sogavare is using the excuse of the Pacific Games to “postpone elections” (democracy delayed is democracy denied). Will PICs let themselves be used to oppress members of their “family”?

Or will they make it clear that any country going to the Games is supporting the suppression of democracy in Solomons. And any athlete participating is saying their chance at a medal is more important than a Solomon Islander’s right to vote.

* Similarly, this should be a make or break moment for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), the chosen regional engagement venue for Washington. The PIF has done very little in the face of several other regional crises (in the last 2-3 years alone: Covid response, Covid recovery, crisis at the University of the South Pacific, China’s security deals, countries leaving the PIF, etc.).

The PIF should either offer to assist in making the elections possible, or recommend that countries don’t participate in the Games if elections aren’t held. This situation is so egregious, if the PIF doesn’t do anything, it is very hard to say what it is for.

* Australia and New Zealand should investigate the disproportionate assets in their countries held by those around Sogavare—including his family members and the 39 MPs.

* It should be made clear those found guilty of national-security corruption will no longer be eligible for visas to Australia, New Zealand, US, etc, including—if the Pacific Island Forum is serious about being a force for good in the region—any Pacific Island Forum country. Not even transit visas.

* Support local media and organizations in Solomons investigating corruption.

* India can work with local partners to help them learn from its successful pushback against Chinese political warfare in places like Maldives.

* Stop saying things like “Solomon Islands is making a deal with China”. Be clear. It is Sogavare and his clique that are making a deal with China. Solomon Islands, as per its Constitution, is the people of Solomons, and they do not like this direction, which is why Sogavare is trying to keep them from the ballot box. Respect them enough to make the difference.

* Australia and New Zealand need to stop doing things that make the situation worse.

Example? Soon after Sogavare announced he was going to try to postpone the elections because he couldn’t afford both the Games and the elections, Australia announced it was giving Sogavare’s government AUD$16.68 million for… the Games.

Countries need to realise this is not business as usual. This is a coup with Chinese characteristics, and if it’s not stopped in the Solomons, it will spread.

Kiribati is already on the continuum, and there is potential for serious (and completely avoidable) violence in Malaita, Bougainville, Chuuk and possibly New Caledonia. Timor-Leste is also on China’s menu, bringing it ever closer to the Indo-Pacific chokepoints.

Those willing to stand up for their people, like President Panuelo, need support. Now. Those trying to soak more blood into the soils of their countries for the sake of personal ambition need to be called to account. Yesterday.

The Chinese Communist Party is not going to stop until it’s stopped. And the more proxies it can gather to its fold the stronger it will get, and the more damage it will do. There is no avoiding this fight, unless you want to accept submission. Currently, it’s Solomon Islanders (among others) who are on the front line. They need back-up. If they don’t get it, and they fall, it spreads.

It’s not too late. Instead of talking about articles that were a year ahead on predicting the problems, we can listen to local leaders and be talking about articles that were a year ahead on finding the solutions. We have a chance, and a responsibility, to stop the need for any new dawn ceremonies.

 

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.