The Domestic Politics of Sogavare’s China-Solomons Tryst

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The Domestic Politics of Sogavare’s China-Solomons Tryst

The prime minister’s latest moves clarify his ultimate objective: augmenting and retaining power, which also stands to benefit Beijing.

The Domestic Politics of Sogavare’s China-Solomons Tryst

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 9, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

Two seemingly disconnected Solomon Islands narratives have been unfolding over the past weeks. One centers on the bonds forged in war eight decades ago and their revival in friendships and partnerships in the present. The other focuses on ominous shifts in the Solomons away from democratic processes and a free press and the exclusion of foreign naval vessels (excepting some Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian vessels for the time being) from its waters as the effects of China’s influence in the Pacific island nation increasingly take hold.

Fronting both narratives is Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Sogavare continues to flex his domestic and international political muscle while navigating through his considerable domestic political challenges and rising geopolitical tensions, confounding many along the way as they attempt to square his seemingly contradictory acts and statements.

Sogavare’s latest moves, however, clarify how these two narratives coalesce around his ultimate objective: augmenting and retaining power. 

On September 2, Sogavare accelerated the timeline for amending the constitution to delay the upcoming 2023 national election, ostensibly because it would coincide with the Pacific Games to be held in Honiara. It is now feared that this provocation, described by opposition leader Matthew Wales as an “abuse of power,” will once again prompt political unrest, as has happened many times in the nation’s past. But this time there is one critical difference. Many now fear that Sogavare has created circumstances that will trigger the enactment of the security treaty that he signed with China in April, which, according to a leaked draft, allows for China “to send police, armed police, and armed forces to the Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order.” Australia’s immediate issuance of a travel caution elevated fears that “the current session of parliament, which is scheduled to consider significant legislation” on September 8 will cause “civil unrest and ongoing local restrictions.” 

Update: After accepting Australia’s offer to fund the next national election, Solomon Islands’ parliament voted by 37 votes in favor to 10 against to approve the constitutional amendment to suspend the election.

World War II Remembrances 

Sogavare’s geopolitical brinkmanship is happening as former combatants remember the Battle of Guadalcanal. This pivotal World War II confrontation between the U.S. and Japanese forces erupted on August 4, 1942, devastating both sides and bequeathing Solomon Islands a lasting legacy of lands and society torn apart. Lethal military detritus is still littered throughout populated areas. To mark the 80th anniversary of the battle’s beginning, the United States sent two of its most senior diplomats, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and the newly appointed ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy.

Both women’s fathers were deeply marked by their service in the Solomons, experiences recounted in several ceremonies in the capital Honiara and other sites on the island of Guadalcanal in early August. Sogavare met the U.S. diplomats away from the cameras, but notably did not attend the official, heavily publicized events. 

Perhaps the most poignant of these was Kennedy’s meeting with John Koloni and Nelma Ane, whose fathers saved the life of the ambassador’s father, the future U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, and his PT Patrol boat crew in August 1943. A Japanese boat sank Kennedy’s vessel when it was patrolling the waters of today’s Western Province islands. Kennedy’s chance encounter with two Rannoga island coastwatchers, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, altered the course of U.S. history. These two men’s rescue of the future president has been recalled numerous times through the nearly eight decades since 1943.

The U.S. and its allies are now trying to return the favor and alter the path the Solomon Islands has been set on almost single-handedly by Sogavare. Only three years ago, Sogavare abruptly, and without open consultation, switched his nation’s allegiance from Taiwan to the PRC in September 2019. Immediately, the effects of this decision were being seen in troubling ways – not least in China’s ambition to secure a long-term lease of an entire island, Tulagi, that had housed the capital under British rule and boasted deep waters for large shipping and land suitable for airports. Blindsided local owners pursued legal avenues and this plan was killed in the courts, though China’s ambitions for the island are likely not extinguished. 

Meanwhile, in September 2020, one year after Sogavare switched his nation’s allegiance, China opened its immense embassy in Honiara, a landmark to its rapidly deepening presence across the archipelagic nation that has continued at a pace despite the Tulagi setback.

China’s Impact on the Solomons’ Domestic Politics

The extent of China’s inroads into Solomon Islands was laid out in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s 4 Corners report that aired on August 1. Focusing on Kolombangara Island, which is situated close to Rannoga Island, the program detailed how Chinese companies were interested in purchasing an extensive plantation that would deliver Beijing a resource-rich island endowed with deep ports and a very strategic location. It also revealed the steep erosion of due process in Solomon Islands to favor Chinese interests, as well as the depth of the political corruption that Sogavare now oversees.

The program estimated that Sogavare paid 3 million Australian dollars in bribes, derived from a China “development” fund, to MPs in 2021 to ensure his continuation as prime minister both before and after the deadly riots that broke out in Honiara that November. Sogavare’s use of these funds to survive a December no-confidence motion after the riots was reported at the time. The 4 Corners report also revealed that Sogavare’s personal bank, ANZ Bank, had cut ties with him due to unexplained transactions.  

Sogavare was furious and immediately called in Australia’s High Commissioner to have what he later benignly described as a “neighborly discussion.” Threats to ban foreign journalists followed, aligning with Sogavare’s increasing attacks on domestic press freedoms.

The deadly riots in November 2021 exposed Sogavare’s great political vulnerability. He is deeply unpopular. When Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea answered Sogavare’s request to quell the riots in Honiara that were literally at his gates, they assured his political survival. This also assured the pro-China course he has set his nation on. 

The riots also displayed China’s vulnerabilities, as violence was tragically directed at residents of Honiara’s Chinatown, many of whose connections with Solomon Islands are deep and long predate the recent Chinese interest in the nation that so many people resent. Despite the immense surge in Chinese investment, very few Solomon Islanders have benefited from projects that, in characteristic style, generate employment for Chinese nationals brought in to work on them, while saddling the Solomon Islands with the bill.

The biggest China-backed project so far was announced in August. The immense Huawei project promises to build 161 mobile communication towers throughout the nation. It is being funded by a A$96 million loan from China, the first such loan since the diplomatic shift in 2019.  Few Solomon Islanders believe this colossal project is intended to improve their lines of communication, but it serves several other key purposes.  As Solomon Island journalist, Georgina Kekea, notes, this project, along with the COVID-19-delayed Tina Hydro Project backed by an array of international (non-Chinese) partners, will more than double Solomon Islands’ debt and take it well over recommended debt levels. Also, the Huawei project significantly escalates security concerns for Australia, which has blocked the China telecom firm from its 5G networks and hopes its Pacific partners will follow suit. Instead of serving the needs of the Solomon Islands, the project serves China’s expansionist purposes and hands it control of the nation’s communications systems.

Sogavare’s political vulnerabilities are also China’s. This mutual self-interest was the reason behind the forging of the secret security agreement signed in April, just before the arrival in Honiara of a high-level U.S. delegation that had intended to stop it being inked. Instead, the most the U.S. delegation got was an assurance from Sogavare that China would not establish a military presence in the Solomons, an undertaking Sogavare has repeated to other concerned nations in the region. One month after that, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made Honiara the first stop on his barnstorming Pacific islands tour in late May, where he hoped nine other Pacific nations would follow the Solomon Islands and make decisive moves into China’s sphere of influence by signing onto a deal to become “China-Pacific Island Countries.”

Now, with Sogavare blocking most foreign naval vessels from his nation’s ports and maneuvering to alter the constitution to suspend the national election due at the time the Solomon Islands will host the Pacific Games in 2023, his strategy has entered a new phase. This new brinkmanship is no doubt spurred by China’s desire to position itself to maximum advantage ahead of the U.S. reopening an embassy in Honiara for the first time since 1993 in the coming months. 

The Logic Behind “Unpredictable” Moves

In playing his cards to both placate China and improve his standing with his constituency Sogavare may appear to be “unpredictable,” but this is not the case. In preventing the U.S. coast guard cutter Oliver Henry and the British vessel HMS Spey from docking in Honiara on August 20, Sogavare was essentially frustrating the vessels’ monitoring of Chinese fishing activities in its waters. As journalist Michael Field highlighted, there was immense Chinese longline fishing activity taking place in Solomon Islands’ EEZ at this time. 

But the decision to not only allow the U.S. hospital ship Mercy to dock but to welcome it with open arms and invite it to return annually, as Sogavare did on August 29, was about domestic politics. The U.S., Australian, British, and Japanese personnel aboard the Mercy were in Solomon Islands to provide urgent medical, dental, and veterinary aid to a nation lacking even the most basic of health services. Along with this aid, the Mercy brought music and a sense of celebration, with the U.S. navy band even singing Solomon Islands tunes, showing the tone the Pacific Partnership seeks to set in its outreach to the region.

Despite this, Sogavare did not immediately relax restrictions on U.S. ships, as he did for Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian vessels on September 5, a move some attribute to Sogavare’s upcoming visit to Canberra. His relations with Canberra took another twist on September 6, when Sogavare slammed Australia’s offer to financially assist with the holding of the election as “direct interference by a foreign government into our domestic affairs,” given that parliament is due to vote on the suspension of constitutional articles in the next two days. 

As well as a slated trip to Canberra, Sogavare also has an invitation to travel to Washington, D.C., in late September to attend the first White House Pacific Summit. The banning of U.S. naval vessels will need to be resolved if Sogavare makes that journey.

What remains to be seen is whether Sogavare makes these significant trips to Canberra and Washington in the coming weeks. Much will depend on how his parliamentary moves to alter the constitution play out this week and what effects they have on the populace. Few doubt that his tried method of retaining political support – monetary payments – will be used again. 

It is high time that the Pacific Games Council that operates this 60-year-old event also steps in and supports Solomon Islands’ democratic processes, which are essentially being set aside for a sporting event deeply enmeshed in a dangerous geopolitical strategy. Given what is taking place, the games must be postponed until after a general election is conducted.

Though there is ongoing uncertainty on some fronts, what is certain is that Sogavare will continue to act in ways that serve his ultimate purpose, to remain in power. This unfortunately also serves China’s sweeping regional ambitions. Any challenges to Sogavare’s latest power moves gives China opportunities to intervene in alarming ways. The 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal should remind all parties that military confrontation in 1942 came at a terrible price, for which Solomon Islands is still paying a heavy price.