The U.S. is blocked from ports in PRC-Influenced Solomons, Vanuatu

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By Cleo Paskal

The United States just reopened its embassy in Solomon Islands, the country that last year signed a security deal with China. Problem solved, right? If only.
Two other things just happened that give a sense of how unstable the situation is, and how far advanced Chinese political warfare operations are in the region.

AN IMMEDIATE THREAT

The first involves pro-PRC Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare government’s ongoing attempts to crush—politically if possible but perhaps by force if necessary—anti-PRC resistance in the province of Malaita.

That resistance has been fronted by Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani, who is concerned about the social and economic effect of PRC activities in the country.

Soon after Sogavare unilaterally “switched” Solomons from Taiwan to China in 2019, Suidani’s provincial government issued the “Auki Communiqué” named for the capital of the province.

The Communiqué said the Malaita government “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business Licences to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party.”

One of the reasons noted was that the Malaita government “acknowledges the freedom of religion as a fundamental right and further observes the entrenched Christian faith and belief in God by Malaitan and MOIan peoples and therefore rejects the Chinese Communist Party—CCP and its formal systems based on atheist ideology”.

Needless to say, that didn’t endear Premier Suidani and his government to those in power who are pro-PRC (and its money), and when Suidani needed medical care outside the country, Sogavare’s government refused to help, unless he accepted the PRC. Suidani refused. He preferred to risk death than take Chinese money.

After the President of Taiwan’s office was alerted to Suidani’s humanitarian need by Prof M.D. Nalapat, she stepped in and provided Suidani with the required care. The Chinese embassy in Solomons was publicly furious, and called on the central government to punish Suidani.

A major attempt to politically take out Suidani was made via an attempted 27 October 2021 Vote of No Confidence against him. In that case, people of Malaita physically blocked access to the legislature to impede the tabling of the motion. The police intervened and defused the situation and it didn’t go ahead.
That doesn’t mean Sogavare’s government or the PRC gave up. They’ve just regrouped, rearmed and spread around more money.

There is likely to be a Vote of No Confidence brought in the Malaita provincial legislature against Premier Suidani on 07 February. This time though, there is a coterie of police who have been trained in China and armed by both China and Australia.

Also, in the interim, Sogavare has “postponed” elections and the climate of fear has spread. The tinder is much more dry and there are more sparks around.

To understand more about the Vote of No Confidence, The Sunday Guardian spoke with respected Solomon Islands leader Peter Kenilorea, Jr.

The first question was, given the term of the Malaita government runs out in less than six months, why now?
Kenilorea explained: “I think this is definitely a last-ditch effort to destabilise Malaita and the [Suidani] government, orchestrated by the central government. I think this is to do with some political points scoring by the government and China. And, individually, the Deputy Prime Minister [who is from Malaita] is feeling threatened by some potential candidates that might run against him.”

There could be another reason as well. A US government aid program in Malaita is proving very popular and that isn’t good for either the central government or China: “The USAID funding [in Malaita] is really starting to roll out. Last week was filled with photos in the local press and social media of leaders, associations, tribal groups signing agreements and collecting funds to kickstart their small projects. This is clearly to destabilse that process.”

In terms of how it is being done, one way, he explained, is: “resources are possibly being channeled through the SBD$40 million (US$4.8 million) China-funded so-called ‘mini-hospital’ in the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency. It could be a conduit through which funds will be flowing to destabilise [Suidani’s government] and to build up a war chest for the next election.”

Last time, the police helped defuse the situation. How about this time?

“There was blowback from the PM’s office and police superiors in the capital to the police for defusing the last Vote of No Confidence. Since then, there has been police training in China and Australia and then an almost ‘gun show’ [when Australia gave Solomon Islands weapons]. Politicians were gleefully looking at weapons. It was bad taste in my view.

“Now there is a new provincial police commander in Auki. They are not sending police as visibly as last time. Perhaps that explains why there is not much news going around. It doesn’t mean nothing is in the works, just that it is not as visible. The Malaitan public don’t have the appetite for these kind of destabilising schemes—everybody just sees through it. There are elements in the Malaitan public who might resort to violence if they feel threatened. People see it very clearly.

“It is as serious as anytime, it’s just the visibility is different. Stakes are still high. “They know the stakes are high—they need to please their masters in Beijing. I keep saying we are in the front line.”

It’s very likely Sogavare is perfectly fine with retriggering a civil war in Solomons. He can’t win a fair election, and putting down “successionist” or whatever he decides to call the demonstrators could give him an excuse to trigger his security deal with China for the sake of “internal stability”.

It would also give him a good excuse to postpone elections for even longer—or at least until he gets in a voting system he likes.

We could go into where Australia is in all of this, and how there are actual solutions (i.e. enacting the Townsville Peace Agreement) but that will have to wait until next time. There is another situation developing that also needs urgent attention.

ONE SLOW BURNING THREAT

The second threat is slower moving but even more troubling. The US is quietly being blocked out of some Pacific Islands ports, likely by pro-PRC elements. In the latest case, Vanuatu failed to issue timely clearance for U.S Coast Guard Cutter JUNIPER (a 225’ buoy tender) to enter Port Vila on 26 January to commence planned ship-rider illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations. The ship, running out of fuel and unable to continue waiting, diverted to Fiji instead.

This wasn’t the first time a Coast Guard Cutter was blocked from entry in a Pacific port.
In August 2022, the USCGC Oliver Henry, which was also on an IUU fisheries patrol, couldn’t obtain entry to refuel in Solomon Islands. Solomons then blocked ALL foreign naval port visits. It later said it would allow in Australian and New Zealand vessels but, as of last reporting, the U.S is still blocked (as is Japan, India, and everyone else).

In both cases, national governments are blaming overwhelmed domestic bureaucracies. However, that rings hollow, given: The high-profile nature of the incidents. The subsequent lack of effort to correct the issue (indeed doubling down in the case of Solomons). The fact these patrols are for something all the countries in the region say they want (help with illegal fishing).

Additionally, both countries seem to have strong pro-PRC elements, with Solomon Islands having signed a security agreement with China, and possibly Vanuatu did as well.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Solomons is also home to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. PRC political warfare predictably targets and tries to weaken regional organizations that create cohesion and threaten its interests.

Anyone concerned about illegal fisheries (and so the economic security of the Pacific Islands), including and especially the Pacific Islands Forum, might like to take a closer look at how the protection regime is being undermined, and perhaps even start the discussion about whether Solomons is a fit host country in which to headquarter the effort.

In the meantime, lack of refuelling ports is stretching the US’ thin naval capabilities even further, and allowing illegal Chinese fishing fleets even greater unrestricted access to the stocks of undefended nations.
Not to mention PRC political warfare gains that can translate into positioning advantages in advance of kinetic activity.

So, what about that new embassy? Kenilorea has been working towards a reopening since he was Foreign Minister in 2017. “There is no Ambassador but the fact the American flag is flying over a building has brought so much hope for many Solomon islanders who were looking forward for this day.”

The staff at that new U.S embassy is going to be very busy indeed.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.