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Beijing’s increased security and political hold of the archipelago risks escalating geopolitical competition, which could ultimately undermine longstanding peace and stability in the Pacific.
The latest dynamic has seen the removal of the Premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani. A long-time critic, Mr. Suidani had used all his powers as a provincial leader to block Beijing’s strategic and economic ambitions on the island. Ten days later, his successor, Martin Fini, a former police officer and ally of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare, announced that he would allow Chinese investments across Malaita.
Following the no-confidence vote, Mr. Suidani’s adviser, Celsus Talifilu, accused the national government of the ouster. In recent years, disagreements between Honiara and Auki have crystallized around Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s recognition of the “one China” principle and the historic security agreement with Beijing. Under this document, the Chinese government can deploy its armed police and military personnel to maintain social order, including Chinese assets. The former Malaita leader gained international notoriety when he launched a campaign against the national government’s security agreement and publicly spoke out about the bribes, in the equivalent of about $40,000 Beijing officials had tried to offer him – for the sake of propping up China’s interests.
The Sogavare government has been further incensed by the repeated actions of the former governor of the Solomon Islands’ most populous island to block Chinese investment projects. The Melanesian island nation is among the poorest islands in the Pacific. Nearly 13% of its inhabitants live below the poverty line and only 70% have access to electricity. For Honiara, the rapprochement with Beijing is intended to advance and strengthen economic development to spur growth and economic opportunities throughout the archipelago.
But Malaitans have been particularly irked by the actions of the national government. Residents fear that the latest political move could undermine the Solomon Islands’ democratic system. Violent protests notably erupted in the capital, Honiara, in 2021 after Mr. Sogavare refused to meet with Malaita residents. When Mr. Suidani was removed from office, protests spread throughout Auki, at times resulting in the firing of tear gas by local police.
The Solomon Islands are the only insular nation in the Pacific where China continues to have real and growing success. The Chinese authorities have suffered several political setbacks in recent months – in May 2022, China wanted to get the bulk of regional nations to sign a security and economic pact; in July 2022, China wanted Kiribati to break away from the Pacific Islands Forum; Fiji’s new Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka is moving to leverage bilateral ties with traditional partners Australia and New Zealand.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ultimate endgame is to entangle the region’s low-income economies in an unsustainable economic relationship that will tie them to its political and strategic ambitions. One reason is to ensure that in the event of a war between Beijing and Taipei, Pacific capitals will at best align themselves with the CCP, or simply abstain, rather than align themselves with Washington.
As the Solamans have shown, China will remain determined to achieve its strategic objectives. The onus is on Western powers to deepen their political, security, and economic engagement in the region to avoid further strategic surprises.