Alexandria, VA: India makes China nervous in ways none of the other Quad countries do. So it’s not surprising that, according to sources, the Solomon Islands government is stalling the entry of the Indian High Commissioner into the country—an extremely unusual move in diplomatic circles. To put it mildly.
A bit of context highlights how serious this is.
In late March, a leaked draft of a security deal between China and the government of Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare started making the rounds. Soon afterwards the capital of Solomons, Honiara, welcomed a gaggle of diplomatic flights.
Among those winging their way through to plead with Sogavare to reconsider letting the PLA set up shop:
* Americans, led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell;
* Japanese, led by Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Kentaro Uesugi;
* Australians, who sent their Minister for the Pacific, Senator Zed Seselja. Also, their two “spy chiefs”, Office of National Intelligence head Andrew Shearer and Australian Secret Intelligence Service head Paul Symon.
If you are wondering where the Indians were, they weren’t there. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
H.E. High Commissioner Inbasekar Sundaramurthi represents Indian in both Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands, and is based in PNG. He took up his post in August 2021. A visit to present his credentials in Solomon Islands was delayed by Covid. However, according to sources, he repeatedly requested to visit and, especially once all the other delegations started coming thorough, there seemed no reason for the government of Solomons to delay.
However, sources say he was told there was no one available to meet him, so he should come in July. This is far from usual diplomatic procedure. These are institutional offices, and if the Minister isn’t available, others can be deputized.
So, to summarise, Campbell, Uesugi, Seselja, Shearer, and Symon flew in and out, no problems with visas. The Indian High Commissioner, the representative of the world’s largest democracy and one of the largest economies, is suggested to come later.
Why the delay until July? Two dates give a hint.
24 May. Quad in-person leaders meeting in Japan.
25 May (plus or minus a day or two). High-level PRC visit to Solomon Islands, possibly led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
These sort of things are usually not a coincidence. Beijing seems to be saying, while you guys have tea in Tokyo and argue over readout wording, we are signing deals in Solomons that could allow us to do real damage to the Quad. And then we are moving on to Vanuatu and Kiribati.
We will cut off Australia, hem in Japan and make Guam a liability. We will be able to squeeze Taiwan from multiple directions. You won’t know where we are coming from, how or with what. Enjoy your tea.
There are reasons for confidence. When the other three Quadies visited Honiara, there was no substantive change of direction from Sogavare as a result. The Americans handled it the best of the three, by meeting with community leaders and the opposition (the vast majority of Solomon Islanders are against the security deal with the PRC), and so giving them space and support. This was against advice from the Australians, who recommended following their lead and only meeting with Sogavare and his coterie—advice that was followed by Japan.
The Australians, who had been taking the “strategic lead” for the West in the region, seem to be doubling down on their failed policy of dealing primarily with Sogavare and his dubious entourage.
Recently, the leader of the opposition in Solomons, Hon. Matthew Wale, put out a press release saying the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were renting a property from a controversial politician closely linked to Sogavare. “The AFP’s deal with this Solomon Islands government politician raises a lot of questions surrounding their independence and that it is likely to undermine the public’s perception of their work in Honiara…I doubt the AFP has similar business deals with their own politicians in Australia,” he said, and called on the Australian government to investigate.
That is key. True or not, there is a deep lack of trust in Australia, even among those antithetical to China, like Wale. A substantial amount of the money garnered by corrupt politicians and businesspeople in Solomons runs through Australia. Canberra is in a position to help the people of Solomons clean house and in the process weaken China’s grip on the country and strengthen their democracy.
Why won’t they do it?
It is possible Canberra thinks those corrupt politicians and businesspeople are its informants, and it is in control. But they are not Canberra’s informants, Canberra is their protector, they are in control. Just look at the outcomes.
Sure, they might be drip feeding intel to their handlers in the backrooms of (likely Chinese run) bars in Honiara about Beijing’s activities. But if they weren’t being protected, if there was transparency, accountability, democracy and rule of law in Solomons, there would be a lot less Chinese activity in the first place.
Canberra seems to be trying to emulate President Franklin D. Roosevelt who reportedly said of the dictator of the Dominican Republic, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
Well, Canberra, as the world has seen, he’s not yours. So what does that leave you with? A bastard who knows your secrets.
So, from a Quad perspective, what does all this mean about countering what is clearly a high priority, high profile push from China deep into the Indo-Pacific?
In spite of some stellar efforts on China in other sectors and some very dedicated people, Australia could do better in the Pacific Islands, perhaps by working with others—we’ll see if the election changes anything. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised questions about political will and, anyway, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the White House seems much more Europe focused—though the US visit to Solomons showed initiative and understanding. Japan seems to be taking defence more seriously than it used to, and it takes Pacific Islands very seriously indeed, but there is still some restraint. And what about India?
Well, there are gaps in Beijing’s plans. India-sized gaps. Which is why it may not be a coincidence that Beijing’s proxies in Honiara are trying to block His Excellency’s entry.
Currently, China’s expansion is largely achieved through political warfare. That is a battlefield on which India has proven skills. For example, New Delhi’s intelligent and effective political warfare ground game was on full display when, two weeks after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ambush of India troops at Galwan in June 2020, New Delhi retaliated by banning 59 Chinese apps, including WeChat and TikTok.
That showed a deep understanding of Chinese tactics, including the 2017 National Intelligence Law, that states: “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work… The State commends and rewards individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to national intelligence work.”
By blocking the apps, New Delhi was blocking a key tool of Chinese political warfare. No other country has managed it. And that’s just one example.
India has used its understanding of Chinese political warfare to help its neighbours weaken the grasp of the PRC on their economies and elites as well, including Maldives and Nepal. And New Delhi is currently working with Sri Lanka to try to bring it back from the brink. And it is keen to work with Pacific Island Countries.
India has a unique track record of effectively engaging with countries to help them liberate themselves from a PRC political warfare attack. And people know it. If anyone doubts India’s ability to provide the sort of human security that can counter China, just ask the pro-PRC elements of the Solomon Islands government why they are trying to keep India out.
When Daniel Suidani, the Premier of Malaita, the most populous province in the Solomon Islands, heard of the issues with the Indian High Commissioner’s visit, he said: “We can’t understand why the government doesn’t eagerly welcome the representative the world’s largest democracy, especially as at the same time it rolls out the red carpet for the world’s largest autocracy.”
“India wants to work with us in a range of much needed sectors, including solar power and village-level development. China wants to work with the government on policing and centralization of control. Policing won’t bring us development.”
“We have a lot to gain from working more closely with India—it innovates and leads in so many sectors, including affordable healthcare, education, pharmaceuticals, IT, communications satellites and so much more, all the while being vibrant, open, and diverse. We feel a natural warmth towards India.”
Hopefully, at the Quad leaders’ meeting, the other three Quadies will be as aware of India’s political warfare aptitude as Premier Suidani. To help the people of the region protect their free and open Indo-Pacific, all the Quad members need to understand each other’s weaknesses, and also their strengths. And use those strengths to reinforce each other’s weaknesses. That sort of burden sharing is what truly scares Beijing. And can give hope to the people of the Solomons, and far, far, beyond.