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US-China Rivalry Riles Tiny Solomon Islands

Above photo: USS Sampson creates wakes while performing “S” turns off the coast of the Solomon Islands in December 2016. U.S. Navy, Bryan Jackson.

Inside the Pacific power cauldron.

Controversial allegations  of attempted U.S. meddling in the election of a prime minister seen as friendly to China.

The Solomon Islands will continue its security pact and economic ties with China after the election of Jeremiah Manele as the country’s new prime minister.  

Manele, a former foreign minister in Manasseh Sogavare’s outgoing government, needed the support of independent MPs to form a government after his Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party surprised many by losing its outright majority. It took 15 seats in the April 17 election, down from 37 at the last election.

Western pundits have cast the new leader as a less “divisive” figure than his “pro-China” predecessor, but many see Manele facing the same difficulties as Sogavare, with the U.S. and its sub-imperial, regional allies squaring up to Beijing to try to contain its rising power.

China and the U.S., with its Pacific allies, have had a vested interest in the new government’s political formation, with major implications for U.S. plans in the region.

The election was marred by allegations of direct U.S. interference and counter charges that leaked documents picked up by Chinese and Russian media and shared locally amounted to disinformation about Washington’s supposed intentions. 

The stories were based on leaks from an unnamed individual said to have been embedded within a U.S.-funded NGO where the source was able to access policy documents, expense sheets and minutes of meetings. 

The unverified articles pointed to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the non-profit International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute all allegedly coalescing around support for  so-called democracy-promoting activities as part of the Pacific Islands Program in the Solomon Islands (SDGPI).

The program is administered locally by the Solomon Islands Election and Political Processes Program (SIEPP) and operates under the direction of the USAID’s Consortium for Election and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS).

Kabini Sanga, a Victoria University of Wellington associate education professor, says there had been a “sustained and dynamic political engagement on the island” before the election. Sanga, who has held a number of senior education sector roles in the Solomon Islands, says he’d been unconcerned about Chinese or U.S. interference over individual constituency’s electoral results.

“Who gets voted in is still largely explained by relational and material-sharing investments in voters’ lives, over time,” he says. Positive educational initiatives over recent years have also countered “the unethical ‘big man’ politics of wealth-sharing to candidates’ supporters.”

However, given what is at stake and taking into account a history of U.S. electoral intervention and regime-change activities elsewhere in the world, any questions over the possibility that U.S. agencies played dirty in the Solomon Islands will be taken as seriously as suspicions of Chinese or Russian disinformation.

It’s clear U.S. agencies are operating in the country. One example is the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), with a U.S.$20 million budget signed off in 2020. It has focused on addressing what it sees as “mismanagement” of resources in the Solomon Islands, like forestry and what it calls a “lack of secure access to land” limiting the growth of tourism.

The leaker to local, Chinese and Russia media released an alleged funding application letter with an official USAID letterhead that shows a request for CEPPS to be allocated an extra $1.5 million for extended operating costs between November 2023 to April 2024 due to the Solomon Islands’ election being pushed back to April 17 while the government focused on hosting the Pacific Games last December.

What is in question is the nature of these organisations’ activities and the  authenticity of the documents released to the news agencies.  

Charge of Disinformation

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a  Canberra-based defence think tank, in an article on its website, The Strategist, charged that “Russia and China co-ordinate on disinformation in Solomon Islands elections” by flagging the documents and stories as an attempt to sway the election with baseless lies and create a false narrative of U.S. regime change activity.

Documents obtained by Consortium News purport to show minutes of two meetings in late November 2023 attended by Western diplomatic staff and Solomon Island opposition figures.  Another document says that ways were discussed to allegedly use surveys with flawed methodology to paint the government as lacking on key issues and creating talking points for opposition and media. 

Most controversially, the documents allege that a USAID-funded group, SIEPP group, carried out a protest “intervention” in 2021 (after Sogavare switched diplomatic allegiances to Taiwan) to “test” local resolve for change and determine how the government was able to handle opposition on streets.

One document points to Solomon Islands Democratic Party leader Matthew Wale and Opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr. at a meeting on Nov. 20, 2023, also attended by a named U.S. State Department official, USAID staffers, as well as named New Zealand and Australian diplomats. The minutes record Wale discussing funding of groups, the success of media campaigns and general discussions over possibility of protests and violence at election time.

The authenticity of the document or veracity of the meeting minutes could not be verified. However, New Zealand’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was asked if one of  its officials had attended the Nov. 20 meeting and whether such activity could be perceived as political interference.

In an emailed reply, a MFAT spokesperson said: 

“In the lead up to elections, including across the Pacific, it is usual New Zealand diplomatic practice to speak with a range of candidates, civil society organisations and partner countries. MFAT refutes any characterisation that this is inappropriate.”

Ann Marie Yastishock, the U.S. ambassador to the Solomon Island said in a statement

“We strongly refute allegations being made in known propaganda outlets that claim USAID and the U.S. Government has sought to influence the upcoming election in Solomon Islands. These and any similar allegations are categorically false and detract from USAID’s highly professionalized and non-partisan support of free, fair, and credible elections in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the world.”

Continued Ties to China

It’s expected that Manele, the new prime minister, will continue to look to China for trade and help in economic development, while also striving to protect the country’s political sovereignty in the face of increasingly hostile great power competition.

Van Jackson, a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, says this may be unrealistic. “As China’s growth slows and its capital account surpluses diminish, its interest (and ability) to engage in overseas lending will wane,” he says.   He added:

“And indeed, that’s what we’ve seen since around 2016 — a gradual ebbing in the looseness of its lending to the Pacific.  I guess what I’m saying is that betting on China to be your source of economic growth may not be realistic in the mid-term or long-term, even though it made sense the past five-to-10 years.  

In that context, the approach of ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ — which pretty much every small nation in Asia and the Pacific subscribes to more or less — is rational but might also be a challenge to sustain.  

Friend to all, enemy to none strategies are stabilizing to the extent that outside powers respect them. But Australia is functioning as a full-throated sub-imperial power on behalf of U.S. primacy, the U.S. itself is expanding its presence in ways both formal — security cooperation, military training — and informal — through civil society organisations like National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.  

China’s economic and security footprint has been expanding too. The ability to maintain independence from outside powers is really key to a strategy of friend to all, enemy to none, but is that possible? I’m skeptical.”

Economic issues will be a priority for Manele, with jobs, services and infrastructure key indicators to his success or failure in government. Failure on any of these fronts will be exploited by the opposition, whether they are supported by Western agencies or not. 

It is clear Manele and his party are skeptical of the lasting benefits of accepting exclusive arrangements with Western partners. It isn’t hard to see why. 

“Aid comes in different colours,” says Pascal Lottaz, assistant professor for neutrality studies at Tokyo’s Waseda Institute for Advanced Study. “Any form of economic aid is a way for countries to influence others, but models of aid can radically differ.”  

He said the U.S. has built a post-war system with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in which the U.S. has controlling stakes:

“Through these, they then funnel money and aid into certain countries but in return, make strong political demands, the neoliberal discourse, basically — you have to open your countries, give us your raw materials.

This debt trap is then being used in order to demand more structural adjustments in order for debt relief and making these countries dependent on the U.S. dollar. That is a very clever strategy, not a nice one, but a clever one.”

Lottaz says China gives aid in its own currency and uses Chinese companies to build infrastructure while creating a circle of dependency with the need to maintain these assets’ infrastructure with Chinese know-how. 

“It is always an economical tool, beneficial, usually, for both sides,” he says.

However, the outcome is qualitatively different from those elicited by Western aid agreements.

“The Chinese don’t have a history of using this to get political leverage inside the individual countries, just like the Japanese. The Japanese and the Chinese don’t try to get regime change or to get new policies in these countries done through this aid,” Lottaz says. “That’s something that the Americans have been doing a lot, and Europe by way of interacting with that.”

US Policy Goes Back to 1950s

The Solomon Islands archipelago, with a population of over 740,000 people, consists of six main islands and over 900 smaller ones in a strategically important location lying on what U.S. strategists call the “Second Island Chain,” separating China from the open Pacific Ocean.

The “Island Chain Strategy” first formulated in the 1950s, aims to project U.S. power by surrounding China with naval bases to achieve a strategic military upper hand and gain a stranglehold on China’s commercial shipping lanes.

There have been a number of recent moves by the U.S. to form naval alliances among China’s neighbours, with joint naval patrols by Philippines, Japan and the U.S. in the disputed South China Sea.

The AUKUS nuclear submarine alliance between the U.S., U.K. and Australia could be at the forefront of any hot war with China, whom the U.S. is finding increasingly hard to compete with in the global market.

An Irritant For Following His Country’s Interests

Sogavare, who served four stints as prime minister, became a major fly in the ointment for the global hegemon’s plans after being voted into power in April 2019. His move closer to China was driven by what he judged to be more favourable development opportunities, free from the strings of neo-liberal economic “reforms” from the West. 

Sogavare dropped diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019, the self-governing island that China claims as an integral part of its territory. A month later he signed up to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

The move away from Taiwan sparked violence that included the torching of a police station, attacks on businesses in Honiara’s Chinatown and the attempted storming of Parliament in an attempt to oust Sogavare. 

Sogavare blamed opposition leader Wale and a “foreign country” for orchestrating the violence. The trouble was quelled with the help of Australian police after a request for help.

Australia has operated the peace-keeping Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) to the divided nation since 2003 in response to tensions and political violence between armed groups on the islands of Guadalcanal, where the capital is based, and Malaita, Wales’ electoral stronghold.

“We all know who they are,” Sogavare said at the time, adding his decision to switch diplomatic allegiances put the Solomons “on the right side of history.”

Sogavare set Western alarm bells ringing further in June last year after signing a bilateral security pact with China that would see China build a pier, which would allow its naval ships to stop for supplies. China also agreed to deploy its police to the island and help build the country’s own policing capacity. 

The U.S., Australia and New Zealand released a joint statement at the time stating the agreement posed a threat to “a free and open Pacific.” Beijing has denied conspiring to have a military foothold in the islands.

Diplomatic relations with the West reached a nadir in March last year, when the Solomon Star reported on March 4, 2023 that there was a U.S.-backed plan to assassinate Sogavare.

The report came just two weeks before a visit to the Solomon Islands by U.S. State Department’s Kurt Campbell, seen as one of the chief architects of Washington’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Campbell was forced to answer press inquiries about the report, which he called “disinformation and smears,” and which the U.S. embassy dismissed as a “fantasy.” Talk of an assassination plot against Sogavare first surfaced in April 2022.

Afterward March last year, Sogavare kept the U.S. at a distance, notably declining to attend a meeting in Washington with U.S. President Joe Biden alongside other Pacific leaders last September, telling media he wasn’t prepared to be “lectured.” 

Mick Hall is an independent journalist based in New Zealand. He is a former digital journalist at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and former Australian Associated Press (AAP) staffer, having also written investigative stories for various newspapers, including theNew Zealand Herald.

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