US and the Solomon Islands: If You’re Not There, You’re Not Interested

November 28, 2021 Updated: December 2, 2021

Commentary

Anti-government demonstrators in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, recently demanded that the prime minister step down—citing his and the government’s corruption and ties to communist China.

After the police fired tear gas at the previously peaceful demonstrators, chaos erupted. An outbuilding at the Parliament caught fire, a police station was attacked, and mobs roamed the town. Over the two days after the protests erupted on Nov. 24, much of Honiara’s Chinatown was burned and looted—though not for the first time. One “Chinese” shop, festooned with Taiwanese flags, was spared.

Americans used to know about the Solomon Islands—and why they matter. The word “Guadalcanal” was enough. That’s where U.S. Marines and Japanese forces fought a long, bloody campaign in World War II.

But the U.S. government has barely paid attention to the Solomons for decades—even though they are as important now as they were in 1942.

The Solomon Islands are “strategic terrain” in today’s contest between China and the free world. Hold the Solomons and you can isolate Australia from the United States and the rest of Asia. You can further dominate the Southwest Pacific and the South Pacific—as Beijing is attempting as part of its long-term political warfare strategy.

The Solomons have been in China’s crosshairs for a long time. In 2019, the government of Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare switched the country’s formal diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan.

Widespread reports and speculation claimed that Sogavare and other influential figures took Chinese cash (and orders) as part of the deal.

Other reports at the time said the Chinese planned to build a military base in the Solomons. The entire island of Tulagi was indeed under contract to a Chinese company—until the Solomon Islands government canceled the deal after it was announced and provoked public protests.

Following the switch, existing resentments festered—particularly in the populous Malaita Province. Malaitan Premier Daniel Suidani opposed the shift to Beijing and he claimed to have turned down bribes. Most Malaitans support Suidani, and the province has even considered seeking independence.

Sogavare wasn’t amused by the resistance to his plans, which included opening Malaita’s vast resources to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-linked companies of his patrons. When Suidani needed urgent medical treatment earlier this year, the government attempted to prevent him from traveling overseas for necessary treatment—hoping the “Malaita problem” would die with him. And the Australians didn’t help much either, though Suidani ultimately succeeded in getting the help he needed—in Taiwan.

After Suidani’s return, Sogavare reportedly pushed suspiciously well-funded local cronies to table a no-confidence resolution against him in the provincial Parliament. However, public resistance was such that the “sponsors” had to withdraw the motion and apologize.

Epoch Times Photo
The island of Tuvanipupu in the Solomon Islands. (Chris Jackson/Pool/Getty Images)

Beijing reportedly was behind it all.

A little context is helpful: Recently arrived ethnic Chinese are viewed askance by many Solomons locals. The reasons are familiar wherever the Chinese diaspora is in the Pacific—dominating local commerce, bringing in Chinese workers for Chinese projects, and exporting the profits (and raw materials) so the locals see few benefits. And then there’s the organized crime and corruption that comes with it all.

So the recent protests and rioting shouldn’t have been a total surprise.

The Australians are now sending troops, police, and a handful of diplomats to support the Sogavare government.

Foreign affairs never lack for irony. Consider that Australia—locked in a nasty economic and political fight with China—is sending troops to support Sogavare, whom the Chinese reportedly have in their pocket. Meanwhile, Canberra is supporting him against citizens who want him to step down and Chinese influence eliminated.

Beijing ought to send the Morrison government a thank you note.

There are Australians with on-the-ground knowledge of the Solomons—and with ideas of how to move things in the free nations’ direction. One wonders if Canberra pays them much attention.

As for the United States, most Americans don’t have the time or inclination to pay attention to the Solomon Islands.

And presumably, the U.S. Embassy has things well in hand.

Or at least it would if there was a U.S. Embassy in the Solomon Islands. There isn’t one.

The Americans outsourced their foreign policy in this part of the world to the Australians. And by extension, U.S. interests are outsourced as well.

No matter what you say, if you’re not there, you’re not interested.

And Washington has near-zero ability to read the local environment and politics—and to quietly influence local affairs. This is a lost opportunity. There is, in fact, a huge constituency in the Solomons who wants the Americans around. They’ve begged the Americans to open an embassy and even, according to some sources, to establish a military presence.

The lack of presence—and interest—on Washington’s part has left many Solomon Islanders perplexed and disappointed.

The Trump administration paid more attention to the Pacific islands than any previous administration. But it couldn’t really get its act together in the Southwest and South Pacific in time to take advantage of opportunities to establish a U.S. presence and support U.S. interests.

In 2020, when the Sogavare government tried to economically squeeze Malaita Province into compliance, the United States ensured $25 million in USAID funds were allocated directly to Malaita. But that was seen as a hurried response to China’s inroads and was no substitute for a full-time presence, such as an embassy would provide.

One already knows the State Department’s excuses: not enough money or diplomats. Really? There’s never any shortage of foreign service officers bidding on Vienna and Brussels. But very few are angling to get to the Pacific, where the living isn’t quite as plush—although the importance to U.S. interests is immense.

As for pleading poverty? Maybe take the “R&R” and “home leave” money for U.S. diplomats at hardship posts such as London, Paris, Tokyo, and the like, and apply it to supporting a mission in the Solomons? It’s just a matter of priorities.

The U.S. ambassador to Palau showed what a few of the right people in the right places can accomplish. Palau has steadfastly resisted Chinese blandishments and pressure to derecognize Taiwan and, in 2020, it asked the United States to set up a military base in the country. The Department of Defense isn’t exactly moving out smartly on this rare offer.

The Palau Capital building is seen in Melekeok, Palau
The Palau Capital building is seen in Melekeok, Palau, on June 20, 2009. (Itsuo Inouye via AP Photo)

And the U.S. military presence in the Solomons? It appears to be well-hidden. There’s a regiment of bored officers building PowerPoint slides at INDOPACOM headquarters. Maybe a few of them can be spared?

The U.S. Marine Corps ought to have paid some attention to the Solomons given their past history—and the commandant’s new strategy that calls for dispersing small units throughout the Pacific.

If nothing else, somebody in the Department of Defense ought to have considered the disadvantage of letting an adversary establish itself in the Solomons and surrounding regions—and the cost of having to “retake” these places.

Sogavare claims “outsiders”—for example, the Americans—are behind the recent protests.

That’s a good one. If he only knew.

That empty lot in Honiara where the U.S. Embassy should be sitting ought to tell him—and the Chinese—everything he (and they) need to know about American influence in the Solomon Islands.

So what’s to be done? Washington ought to remember that line: If you’re not there, you’re not interested.

“Being there” would be a good first step.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.