China’s growing reach is transforming a Pacific island chain

Children watch the sun set over a construction site where China is building a $50 million stadium for the Solomon Islands ahead of the 2023 Pacific Games. (Photo by Michael Miller/The Washington Post)
Children watch the sun set over a construction site where China is building a $50 million stadium for the Solomon Islands ahead of the 2023 Pacific Games. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — The half-built stadium is hard to miss in a country of crumbling infrastructure. Cranes swing massive pieces of steel. Welding sparks rain down from the rafters. Trucks hauling concrete rumble late into the night. Above it all soar two flags, one belonging to this underdeveloped island nation and the other to the country building and paying for the $50 million project: China.

“For Shared Future,” read signs in English and Chinese.

That future has its critics, however.

As China rapidly extends its reach in the Pacific, its growing influence is unmistakable in the Solomon Islands, a country with which it established diplomatic ties only in 2019. The relationship between the world’s most populous country and this Pacific archipelago of 700,000 people was thrust into the spotlight this year when word leaked that they had struck a secret security agreement. The United States and its allies fear the pact could pave the way for the establishment of a Chinese military base in the strategically valuable island chain where several thousand American soldiers died during World War II’s Guadalcanal campaign.

The Solomon Islands and China have denied plans for a base. But China is changing this country in other ways. Some are flashy, such as the sports stadium that will serve as the centerpiece of next year’s Pacific Games. Others are subtler yet potentially more profound, including growing Chinese influence over local policing and politics and a plan for Huawei to build more than 150 telecommunications towers that critics fear could enable Chinese surveillance. Many of the deals remain shrouded in mystery, months or years after they were struck.

Perhaps most problematic is Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s plan to delay next year’s election, which he says is to avoid conflicts with the games. His opponents claim it’s a power grab that could spark riots like the ones that roiled the capital last year and give Sogavare an excuse to call in Chinese troops.

In a country divided over China, the stadium is the ultimate Rorschach test. It was once going to be a gift from Taiwan, which Honiara previously recognized over Beijing. Now, it’s being built by a Chinese state-owned company with a grant from the Chinese government. Some say it is sorely needed. But others worry what will happen when the games have finished.

“This gift has strings attached, but for what? Our resources? Influence? A base?” said opposition lawmaker Peter Kenilorea Jr. “Sooner or later, they will come and collect, and I worry that by then we’ll be so dependent on China we will not be able to extract ourselves.”

The United States and Australia are both increasing their aid and diplomatic engagement with Pacific nations, including the Solomon Islands, where the Biden administration announced in February it would reopen the long-closed U.S. Embassy. Some Solomon Islanders feel the efforts by China’s rivals are too little, too late. But cracks also are showing in China’s promises.

“We are starting to see how China does things,” said Robert Maenalamo, 41, as he waited outside the stadium for a paycheck he said was more than two weeks late. Like many of the construction workers, he hailed from the province of Malaita, whose opposition to China has strained relations with Sogavare’s government.

Maenalamo said he’d just finished a shift pouring concrete. He needed the job to send his children to school, but he also felt the stadium was a Chinese attempt to “manipulate” the Solomon Islands. His village in Malaita was so worried about the project that it asked him to report back on what he found.

The Chinese, he said, “have got their own plans for this country.”

Secretive deals

The security pact between the Solomon Islands and China is one of several Beijing has been pushing to Pacific island nations in recent years, according to a senior U.S. official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

That Beijing’s breakthrough came in Honiara was no coincidence: In Sogavare, the Chinese found a canny politician with a grudge against Australia — a key U.S. ally in the region — a combative streak and what some experts say is an ambivalence toward democracy.

“Every time he’s been in power, he’s tended to take an autocratic turn,” said Graeme Smith, an expert on China and the Pacific at the Australian National University. “This represented an opportunity Beijing couldn’t pass up.”

Sogavare declined requests for an interview. In speeches, he says his country is a “friend to all and enemy to none” that is simply “diversifying” its foreign relationships. But he has accused Australian forces of failing to protect Chinese-built infrastructure during the November riots, a charge Australia has denied.

“He’s got a lot of resentment, a lot of built-up scar tissue about Australia,” Smith said.

The son of missionaries from the Solomon Islands, Sogavare, 67, was born in Papua New Guinea at a time of increasing calls for independence from Australia. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, recalled Sogavare’s coming to his Catholic school in Honiara, not to talk politics but to perform karate.

“I used to see people break bricks on his stomach,” he said of Sogavare, who is a black belt. “He sometimes runs the government like he’s in the dojo.”

U.S. to open new embassies, boost aid in Pacific as China’s sway grows

Sogavare’s four stints as prime minister have been tumultuous. He first came to power in 2000 after his predecessor was toppled in a coup but lasted only a year. His second stint also ended quickly, after a spat with Australia in which Sogavare expelled Canberra’s top diplomat and Australian peacekeepers raided his office. A third spell was cut short in 2017, when members of Parliament accused him of trying to push through legislation they did not support.

His current term began in controversy. He ran for reelection to Parliament in 2019 as an independent, only to emerge from days of bitter backroom negotiations as prime minister. Five months later, Sogavare — who two years earlier had urged the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Taiwan — announced that the Solomon Islands would recognize China.

The decision’s timing and lack of debate sparked allegations that Beijing had played a role in his return to office, something Sogavare and China have denied.

Sogavare’s former press secretary Douglas Marau, who now works for the opposition, said the diplomatic switch was “the talk of the corridors” in Parliament when Sogavare was selected as prime minister. “The amount of money circulating at the time of the formation of government, only god knows where it came from,” he said.

Around the same time, Kenilorea said “Chinese interests” approached him via an intermediary with an offer of $1 million and land near Honiara if he would “say nice things about China.”

In November, hundreds of protesters from Malaita gathered outside Parliament and demanded to see Sogavare, in part over his backing for Beijing. Soon, rioters were looting and torching buildings, especially Chinese-owned shops.

As the violence continued into a second day, Australia agreed to Sogavare’s request to send troops, around 100 of whom landed on the third day and helped restore order.

“Had they arrived 24 hours later, Sogavare likely wouldn’t be in office,” said a diplomat in the Pacific region who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sogavare claims he turned to China because Australia refused to protect Chinese buildings. But many of his opponents suspect the security agreement was already in the works.

Opposition leader Matthew Wale told The Washington Post that he approached the Australians three months before the riots and warned them Sogavare was working on a security deal with China. Australian officials have denied it.

Kenilorea also said he warned Australia’s top diplomatic representative in the Solomons, High Commissioner Lachlan Strahan, around the same time that Sogavare was aiming to bring in Chinese “boots on the ground” to supplant Australia as peacekeeper.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) did not respond to a question about Kenilorea’s claim. But it said in a statement: “Australia has been aware of China’s interest in greater engagement in the security sector in Solomon Islands for some time.”

The United States caught wind of the China-Solomons security discussions a few weeks after the riots and saw strong indications that the two countries were working on an official agreement in February, a month before the leak, according to the diplomat in the Pacific. But when the draft emerged in late March, the wording was a shock. “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistics replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands,” it said.

Sogavare says he cannot release the final version without China’s permission, even as he dismisses international alarm. “Let me assure you all again, there is no military base,” he said last month.

China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors

But opposition leaders and some experts say China could use commercial facilities to establish a de facto base.

“When people hear ‘base’ they think big land mass with big infrastructure,” said Marau. “But it might be something smaller.”

An Australian expert on the Solomon Islands said China already has access to a privately owned deep-water port just outside Honiara. Clive Moore, the expert, said that it was at this port this year that customs officials found a shipment of guns after seizing a shipping container addressed to the Chinese Embassy and carried on a logging vessel. Police later declared that the weapons were replicas donated by China for training.

Moore also speculated that the Gold Ridge mine, which is two hours from Honiara and is majority-owned by a Chinese company, could be used as a discreet military garrison. But Walter Naezon, the director of Gold Ridge Mining, insisted that the site was “purely private.”

In 2019, a Chinese company with links to the Chinese government tried to lease an island with a deep-water port. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that a Chinese state-owned company is negotiating to buy a deep-water port and airstrip on a different island.

Sogavare has said the security pact is needed because of “internal” threats. On independence day last month, he praised China and warned of “forces of evil” in his country.

Many of his fears appear to center on Malaita, the most populous province, whose government refuses to recognize China. The provincial premier, Daniel Suidani, denied having any connection to the protests that turned violent last year. But he admitted that when Sogavare’s office asked him to tell the protesters to go home, he refused.

“I said it was too late,” he told The Post in his office in the small town of Auki, four hours by ferry from Honiara. Suidani said the security pact appeared aimed at his province. “There are businesses and buildings here in Auki owned by Chinese,” he said. “Definitely [Chinese security forces] will end up here.”

Suidani said community policing exercises in Malaita had been falsely portrayed as a scheme to overthrow the prime minister. But one Malaitan political figure told The Post about plotting to oust Sogavare in late 2019.

“I was trying to see what would be the options to get Sogavare out, including some nasty things,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. Pressed on what that meant, he said: “Assassination.”

The political figure, who did not provide evidence to corroborate the claim, said he discussed the idea with others for two months before abandoning it. He also claimed he was working as an informant for Australia at the time and asked Australian officials how they would respond to an assassination but that they refused to discuss the scenario.

The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force did not respond to a request for comment on potential plots against the prime minister. Australia’s DFAT declined to answer questions about the individual.

“Australian assistance directly supports the security and stability of the democratically elected government of the Solomon Islands and its citizens,” it said in a statement. “We unconditionally condemn any form of politically motivated violence.”

Projecting China’s system

The neighborhood next to Honiara’s hospital looks like a cyclone hit it. Most homes have been reduced to foundations. Children play with medical devices among the ruins. The aging hospital was largely built by Taiwan. But this neighborhood is being cleared for a new hospital wing, and the area’s residents have been relocated. As with the stadium, the benefactor is Beijing.

“People say China is just doing it as a PR campaign to fool people,” said a hospital worker smoking a cigarette where his home once stood. “But they are doing impactful things.”

He said the Solomon Islands was grateful for decades of aid from the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, which remains the country’s biggest provider of aid.

“But we don’t see any of it, smell any of it, taste any of it,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

Yet some worry that China is not just building the country but is transforming it.

“As China projects its power, it’s also projecting its system,” said Kabutaulaka, the University of Hawaii political scientist. “The idea that people can protest or disagree with the government, that is not the way Beijing does things.”

For years, Taiwan helped bankroll a fund for all 50 members of Parliament to use on projects in their districts. China took over after the switch, annually providing about $8.5 million, or $170,000 per district, according to Samson Viulu, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Rural Development, which oversees the fund. China’s contribution dropped to less than $50,000 per district this year. And next year, it will be replaced by a separate program that will give the Chinese Embassy “final approval” over who gets roughly $12.5 million, he said.

The change, which has not been previously reported, is to implement “checks and balances” that were absent during the relationship with Taiwan, according to Viulu. He said the Chinese Embassy had promised him it would not play politics with the fund.

China could control the country’s airwaves, too. The government is in discussions for the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to build 161 mobile phone towers across the Solomon Islands, said Peter Shanel Agovaka, the communications minister. The project would cost between $60 million and $70 million and be financed mostly with a loan from China.

Kenilorea said he feared the country could become trapped by debt. But he also worried that the phone towers could be used to eavesdrop, especially on the opposition. The United States, Australia and many other countries have banned Huawei equipment from their national networks over spying concerns.

“I’m very concerned about us becoming a surveillance state,” Kenilorea said.

Shanel dismissed the idea, saying Huawei had reassured him “there is nothing to be afraid of.”

The government has become more secretive under Sogavare, Kabutaulaka said. It has signed a dozen memorandums of understanding with Beijing since the diplomatic switch, including for airport upgrades and offshore mining, but none has been publicly released, and senior officials often are in the dark about the details.

Sogavare recently announced that the national television and radio broadcaster, SIBC, would come under more direct government control, raising fears of censorship. And there are increasing worries over the police, who were once trained by Australia but are now being instructed by China — an arrangement Sogavare said he would like to become “permanent.”

“Look at how the Chinese treat their own people,” said Ruth Liloqula, the chief executive of the nonprofit Transparency Solomon Islands. “We don’t want that style of policing here.”

The biggest worry for many here is what will happen if Sogavare goes through with his plan to amend the constitution and defer next year’s election. He says he will delay it until 2024, but critics say nothing is stopping him from deferring it further.

“It’s about staying in power,” said Kenilorea.

Suidani said he expected that people would protest and that demonstrations could again devolve into riots. That could provide Sogavare an opportunity to invoke the security agreement and bring in Chinese security forces.

“They would make the situation much worse,” Moore said. “The Chinese are more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.”

The risks are evident in Honiara’s Chinatown, half of which remains in ruins from the November riot. One business owner of Chinese descent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared further violence, said he dodged rocks thrown at him and begged rioters not to burn his property. On the second day of the riots, he heard the screams of three people trapped inside a burning building.

One of them was George Tagini, a father of four from a shack along a trash-strewn stretch of Honiara’s beach. His family said he wasn’t a looter, as news articles claimed, but a security guard trying to stop the rioting. His body was so badly burned that relatives could not identify him.

“People were burning and looting because of some disagreement over the government recognizing China,” said Tagini’s uncle, Danny Konge. “But George didn’t care about that. He just cared about his job.”

Ellen Nakashima in Washington and Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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