The Americans went to the Solomon Islands almost two weeks ago. It was a high-power delegation that included Biden’s National Security Council Indo-Pacific “Asia Czar” Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s Asia-Pacific head Daniel Kritenbrink, and senior officials from USAID and USINDOPACOM.
But there was an air of desperation to it all—given that the Solomon Islands government had just signed an agreement with China that potentially allows unfettered Chinese military access to the Solomons. This is the first such “military” deal Beijing has signed with a Pacific nation.
The U.S. team met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and expressed concerns about the deal with the Chinese. That ship has sailed, however.
Sogavare will gladly take whatever “goodies” the Americans have to offer. But he won’t be persuaded or “paid” to revoke the Chinese deal. And a handsome aid and development package won’t change his mind. Indeed, it might even bolster his standing in certain quarters—as the guy who got the Americans to pay attention to the Solomon Islands—and to pay up.
Sogavare has cast his lot with Beijing and might be counting on the Chinese to keep him in power since he and the Solomons–China deal are widely unpopular with large parts of the public, including the important western and Malaita provinces.
Sogavare would probably lose the next election—scheduled for 2023—and so it’s feared he will try to postpone it.
So What’s Coming?There’s a real risk of the Solomon Islands becoming a one-party state run by a corrupt regime that keeps power by violence and a Chinese presence. And this will mean civil war once again in the Solomons—with all attendant misery for the citizenry.
There’s only a short window to avoid this.
The American visitors told Sogavare that the United States will have “significant concerns and would respond accordingly” if China sets up a permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation.
Sogavare might be forgiven for thinking that Washington’s “respond accordingly” means a furrow-browed expression of “serious concern.”
And Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has staked his prestige on the Solomons deal, might think so.
But the United States has a few options. For starters, it might do what it should have done a long time ago. Pay attention to the Solomon Islands (and the other Pacific Island nations), and don’t outsource things to the Australians and the New Zealanders.
That means having a real presence. The United States closed its embassy in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, in 1993 but has promised to reestablish an embassy and fast-track the process. It should probably fast-track it some more. In State Department terms, “fast-track” can mean “within the decade.”
Washington should immediately get diplomats on the ground. And not just any foreign service officers who happen to be available and willing to go. Instead, select gifted officers able to influence and who understand political warfare. Require them to produce—not just write cables and host delegations from Washington.
Next, get to know the locals and listen to them. The Solomons are more than just Sogavare and his cronies. There are opposition politicians, provincial leaders, religious organizations, and women’s groups. All are immensely important domestically, and all are distressed with what Sogavare is doing—especially given that as the “opposition,” they are likely targets for any repression he and Beijing have planned.
Giving attention to these leaders and groups encourages them, adds to their power and influence, and provides some protection from Sogavare’s coercion.
To its credit, the U.S. delegation that came through did meet with opposition leaders and citizen groups. But there’s something even more useful the Americans and their friends can do: go after the bribery and corruption that “juices” communist China’s subversion and influence efforts in the Solomons and the rest of the Pacific.
It works for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) because it’s rarely exposed.
What’s needed is an aggressive, focused intelligence effort to uncover and expose the bribes and hidden inducements the CCP and Chinese commercial entities give to Solomon Islands leaders and their cronies, and to make sure everybody everywhere in the Solomons, the region, and the Pacific know about it.
Every deal signed with a Chinese or other foreign company in the Solomons should be exposed to public scrutiny.
What Does This Corruption Look Like?The following are just a few examples of Beijing’s modus operandi: building houses and providing prestige vehicles for politicians and officials; providing “study trips” to China for local politicians and family members with an envelope of cash on arrival; paying bribes to obtain licenses and permits for Chinese companies—particularly fishing and logging companies; bribing officials to put Western companies out of business so Chinese companies can take over their operations; and under-the-table payments to foreign policy decisions, such as changing political recognition from Taiwan to China or supporting Beijing’s position in a regional organization.
And there are kickbacks from construction and real estate projects, and payoffs to allow illegal Chinese immigrants into the country and to overlook foreign exchange and labor regulations.
The only limit is the extent of one’s criminal mindedness.
This means that there is a bright red criminal line tying the corrupt back to the CCP—making them and their patrons vulnerable to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. Cutting that line cuts the country free from Beijing. It’s essential to track officials’ and their cronies’ overseas real estate holdings and bank accounts—and freeze them, seize them, and return the money for the benefit of Solomon Islanders.
Go after the aiders and abettors—the foreign banks, attorneys, real estate agents, and even certain politicians and think-tankers that excuse it all. Expose, sanction, seize, arrest, and imprison as applicable. And publicize it to high heaven.
But isn’t this approach too harsh?
No. Have no illusions about Sogavare and his cronies.
He knows he will probably lose the 2023 elections; if he can’t rig them, he will try to postpone them. In the meantime, he will dig in—using Chinese money and bought politicians, paid thugs, crooked police, increased surveillance, corrupt judges and prosecutors to intimidate, imprison, and, if necessary, kill the opposition.
Indeed, he brings to mind Zimbabwe’s former “President” Robert Mugabe, as he installed himself into power and then looted and ran the country into the ground for 37 years. The Americans (and the British) thought they could moderate Mugabe through engagement and turned a blind eye to what he was doing—not least murder, corruption, and rigged elections. The claim was, “It will make things worse if we say something,” and “he was elected, after all.” Yes, “once” and “sort of.”
There’s something condescending about this approach. As if the locals deserved nothing better—and didn’t really mind corrupt, repressive rule.
One Easy Way to Show the Entire Pacific Matters to WashingtonRenew the COFA agreements with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands tomorrow. And immediately settle the outstanding nuclear testing claims for the Marshall Islanders.
But get to work in the Solomons. Work with the Australians and the Japanese—but don’t wait around for them.
And keep score every six months.
Of course, Chinese “juice” is just as plentiful and effective in Washington, Tokyo, London, Canberra, Ottawa, and any number of so-called first-world places. But that’s another story and even less excusable.