Leaders who are standing up to China are deeply shaken by what happened to Suidani and the resounding quiet from the international community that claims to back democracy.

Koror, Palau:

If you thought what Beijing did to Hong Kong was bad, wait until you see what it does to Malaita, Solomon Islands.

In September 2019, the Prime Minister of Solomons, Manasseh Sogavare unilaterally switched the country’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, opening the floodgates for massive PRC interference in the internal affairs of the country.

This has included signing a security deal that allows for the deployment of PRC forces in Solomons to protect Chinese citizens and major projects, repression of political opponents and a chilling of press freedoms.

A Chinese slush fund also doled out payments to 39 of the 50 Members of Parliament, most of whom then voted to postpone the elections that were scheduled for this year.

Malaita, Solomons’ most populous province, has symbolized resistance to this CCP-ification of the country.

In October 2019, the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG), led by Premier Daniel Suidani and backed by traditional leaders, made their position clear via the Auki Communiqué—a historically important document that shows people on the ground understand the CCP better than most of those in think tanks in major capitals.

The Communiqué explains why working with the CCP is bad, and describes a values-based approach to development. It is an exceptional act of courage.

It reads the MPG “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business Licences to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party.”

One reason given is the MPG “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”.

Also “MPG specifically observed the need to be free from unwarranted interference of persons and therefore reject any notion of a police state.”

The Communiqué says the MPG “welcome partners around the world that share or recognise values the people of Malaita and MOI embrace”.

Well, in the three years that followed the Communiqué, not enough of those partners came. Meanwhile, China flooded the field with money and targeted political warfare.

And so, after trying since 2019, a few weeks ago the PRC and its proxies finally managed to get rid of Suidani and his government in a motion of no confidence. None of the countries who preach democracy helped the Malaitans stay in control of their democracy.

One of the first acts planned by the new PRC-backed government in Malaita is to “axe” the Auki Communiqué.

The Communiqué aimed to protect Malaitan people and resources from the rapacious activities of one country. The fact cancelling it will be one of the first acts of the new Government makes it hard to deny that getting rid of Daniel Suidani and his government wasn’t about opening up new territory for China and expanding and deepening the Hong Kongification of Solomons.

Other leaders who are standing up to China are deeply shaken by what happened to Suidani—and the resounding quiet from the international community that claims to back democracy.

Many are fighting well-funded Malaita-style PRC political warfare campaigns of their own. Those leaders know they have Suidani-style targets on their backs. And are worried they too will be left to fight on their own.

And yes, there are many brave leaders in the region. For example, there was a recent meeting of the Micronesian Presidential Summit (MPS). The five member countries of the MPS are Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati. The first three recognize Taiwan.

It is the Micronesian region’s turn to choose the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional organization that includes countries from across the Pacific Islands, plus Australia and New Zealand.

The Micronesians selected Nauru’s Baron Waqa. Not only does Nauru recognize Taiwan, Waqa is known for standing up to PRC bullying. At a meeting in Nauru in 2018, when Waqa was President of Nauru as well as Forum Chair, he stopped the head of China’s delegation, Du Qiwen, from jumping in and cutting off speakers from the region.

Waqa later said: “He disrespected the Pacific, the Forum island leaders and other ministers who have come to join us in our territory. Are you kidding? Look at him, he’s a nobody… He’s not even a minister and he’s demanding to be recognised and to speak before the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. Is he crazy?”

Now, that’s a leader—and the future head of the Pacific Islands Forum. Though you can be sure there will be attempts to “Suidani” him. Having a leader that is willing to stand up to China is not something Beijing wants. Likely neither do many in Wellington, Canberra, Honiara, and elsewhere…it will cause them trouble in their own relationships with Beijing.

And in case anyone is wondering how serious China is about expanding its reach into the region, Beijing has just appointed a “special envoy of the Chinese government” to the Pacific Islands.

These posts are for areas of particular focus. As an envoy of the entire government rather than, as is often the case, of just the Foreign Ministry, he may have greater access to a larger unrestricted warfare toolkit to use to expand China’s influence and control in the region.

So, how to protect the leaders in the region trying to resist the CCP-ification of their countries? 

China comes in to countries promising commercial benefits, but threaded into that are strategic advantages for Beijing. There is a third strand as well that is always there—corruption. That is the weakest strand. Unpick that, and the commercial and strategic fall away. 

It is why China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) can also be known as the Bribery and Repression Initiative. Without those elements, it is much less likely to spread.

For example, without illegal Chinese payments in Solomons, elections would be held this year, and Suidani would still be Premier of Malaita.

So, a key way to weaken China’s death grip on democracies is to go after that corruption. If you take Chinese money, if you sell your country, you end up in jail. That’s it.

Much of that illegal money ends up in places like Australian and New Zealand real estate.  If Canberra and Wellington just did their jobs in terms of transparency and accountability and start looking into “disproportionate assets”, it would dramatically curtail Beijing’s leverage in the region.

It would also be popular locally, show that you back the ones brave enough to stand for something (and what Australia and New Zealand say they stand for), and it will work.

And if it isn’t done, nothing else matters.

Everything else, press freedoms, democracy, human rights, etc., will all eventually get eaten away by the rot. And the Hong Kong Archipelago will form a chain of repression and strategic control stretching down to just off the coast of Australia.

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.