With broad support, Malaita, the most populous province of the Solomon Islands, a Pacific nation northeast of Australia, has decided to launch an independence referendum. For any American, this story could not be further from interest. In a world of COVID, of mass protest, of China, and of an extremely turbulent election, an irredentist movement in the Solomon Islands seems about as far away as the Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, you are connected to this faraway province. For this event isn’t happening in a void. It’s a continuing story that relies on the same ingredients that affect us, and there are important takeaways and connections that we have to this archipelago.
The Iron Earth of Tulagi
The sky’s constitution was peppered with shiny metal. Up above was a solitary plane flying low. As the Zero approached the tiny island of Tulagi, its Type 97 machine guns lit up with typical fury as they strafed the American Marines on the beach. Later that night, the channel south of the island shook with fury as the Japanese handed the Americans their worst naval defeat ever at Savo Island. So many ships were sunk in this channel that it is now named Iron Bottom Sound after the metal carcasses that lie on the ocean floor.
American blood composes the soil of the Solomons. At Tulagi and Guadalcanal thousands of Japanese, American, and Commonwealth soldiers died in some of the most intense fighting of the Pacific War. For thousands of Americans in the Greatest generation, Tulagi was their baptism, their glory, their coffin.
Straighten up and Fly Right
It’s been 70 years, and planes still descend into Henderson Airport, a name that’s stuck since the Americans named it during the battle of Guadalcanal. On September 2nd, the sky still shone gray as 104 passengers taking off from Guangzhou, China landed in Henderson airport, directly precipitating a civil insurrectionary movement in the Solomon Islands. To understand how one airplane landing in an airport can trigger a political crisis in the Solomon Islands, one has to know the broader context in which this event is happening.
The Pawn’s Choice
The area that is threatening secession by referendum is the island of Malaita, which is the country's largest province. It is not, however, the seat of power which is on the island of Guadalcanal in the country’s capital at Honiara. There is a clear clash of beliefs with the government in Honiara led by PM Manasseh Sogavare and the local government of Malaita led by Daniel Suidani, with Members of Parliament (MPs) from Malaita acting as mediators between the parliament they are in and the island they are representing.
The current rift between Malaita and Honaira began with Sogavare’s decision to break relations with the Republic of China, Taiwan, and initiate diplomatic relations solely with the People’s Republic of China, Mainland China. This decision, made in September of last year, was unpopular with many pro-Taiwan, anti-communist, and deeply religious Malaitans, who form an important political bloc on the island.
Accusations of bribery by China and Taiwan over the issue of diplomatic relations, combined with religious and nationalist appeals have incited strong anti-China sentiments on the island and a war of words between Malaita and Honaira. Tension between the two flared again in June when Suidani accepted PPE and other COVID-related equipment donations from Taiwan, a move done to undercut the country’s new embrace of China. Sogavare’s government responded by seizing the materials. The opposition leader, the Hon. Jonathan Wale, condemned the move and Suidani played up on the incident by launching the #MalaitaLivesMatter campaign to get the PPE.
The incident resulted in a bunch of macho posturing, but the referendum for independence does not start here. It is only an event in a series of events that lead to the straw that broke the camel's back. That straw is a Chinese plane flying into Honiara at the beginning of September.
The reason this flight was so divisive is due to, like many things in 2020: COVID-19. While the Solomon Islands has 0 cases of COVID-19, it knows its infrastructure could not handle an outbreak. Thus, most travel to the country, including nearly all international flights, has been banned. However, hundreds of Solomon Islanders were working or studying abroad before the crisis, necessitating reparation flights to bring these people back if they wanted to. There have been eight of these flights already bringing in slightly less than a thousand Solomon Islanders back into the country. It was under this pretext that the flight from Guangzhou was allowed into Honiara, as 21 of the flight’s 104 passengers were from the Solomon Islands.
However, it was the 83 Chinese nationals also on board the flight who indirectly angered the entire local government of Malaita. The anger stemmed from the belief that the government lied to them about the nature of this repatriation flight, the fear that these passengers might carry COVID, and prior anti-China sentiments. The next day, the Solomon Island NGO Transparency Solomon Islands (TSI) made a press release blasting PM Sogavare for his dishonesty to the country and reckless endangerment of the citizenry done to simply appease China.
The regional/global order that the CCP will attempt to implement in the coming decades is going to be challenged by a whole host of actors, and it’ll be tragic to witness the diaspora community get caught in the crossfire.
The TSI was right in that this move was not “essential.” They were there to help start construction on the 2023 Pacific Games facilities which the Solomon Islands were hosting and to send Chinese diplomats to the new embassy in Honiara. However, Sogavare would argue that the move helped the Solomon Islands by solidifying a lucrative relationship with China. Nevertheless, other groups such as Malatia 4 Democracy and the Malaita government picked up on the dissatisfaction and ramped up the rhetoric. Suidani, following in the footsteps of other irredentist islands in the Pacific like Bougainville and New Caledonia, declared a referendum for the island.
This action, in addition to being extreme to the casual observer, is reflective of previous trends in the history of the Solomon Islands. From 1998-2003, ethnic tensions between local Guales on Guadalcanal and Malaitans in Guadalcanal over economic opportunity and simply tribalism resulted in a quasi-civil war that killed hundreds and displaced thousands of Solomon Islanders—mostly Malaitans who fled back to Malaita. It took a relatively substantial stabilization effort from Australia and New Zealand known as RAMSI, alongside cooperation between Guale and Malaitan paramilitary groups, for a truce, if tenuous, to be formed.
It’s not clear if Suidani is playing the same tune as 1998, I don’t in the Solomon Islands so it’s difficult for me to say, but the chords are still there. Luckily, there was little to no violence. There were protests in Malaita’s largest city Auki over the China Direct flight and the firing of a bureaucrat aligned with Suidani, but writing a few weeks after the height of this drama, there hasn’t been any notable violence.
In the follow up to Suidani’s proposed referendum, not much happened. Some Malaitans supported him and others didn’t. The government called it illegal, and a lot of words were said. But they were just words. By September 22nd, the Chinese ambassador took his residence in the new embassy, and Suidani’s gambit failed, which cost him some of his political standing, but he regained it back due to a multimillion USAID investment on the island.
Suidani’s proposed referendum on Malaitan independence, never an idea that hit the sexy world of official legal documents, is now nevertheless an idea in the Solomon Islands Overton window, even though it probably will not happen. It was a mostly anticlimactic ending to a technically national but from an American perspective miniscule story.
There is a connection that the Solomon Islands has with the great powers of the world. It was colonized by the British, occupied by the Japanese, liberated and currently supported by the Americans, and now is receiving aid and investment from China.
What Does This All Mean?
You may wonder why I have gone through the trouble of writing this arguably derivative political crisis. Because this event is a case study for the challenges facing Chinese policymakers.
For the Chinese, Malaita is another small cut onto their global/Indo-Pacific power projection. It’s a small cut, and Chinese foreign policy bodies can take and heal from these cuts, but they won’t be dealing with one Malaita, they’ll be dealing with hundreds of them. Meaning that as China flexes its immense demographic, economic, and military muscle to leverage nations towards more pro-China agreements, they’re going to have to deal with the political blocs in those nations who will do everything in their power to resist Chinese influence.
The big and small fish of Asia now have strong anti-China elements. In the Maldives, president Ibrahim Solih and his party in parliament was catapulted into power in 2018/19 because the prior administration was viewed by Maldivians as having been too enraptured by Chinese investment projects. Japan regularly quarrels with China over the status of the Senkaku islands, and has even asked for the US to conduct military drills on those islands. In Australia, relations with China have been worsening consistently by the year for the past two decades. None of these trends will weaken China, but collectively, they are a death by a thousand cuts which hems in China's ability to project power outside its borders.
The CCP has done little in terms of building international goodwill to prevent these “cuts,” but it would be unfair to characterize all anti-China sentiment as just a dislike for the current government in Beijing. For sure, China’s authoritarian, dishonest, and uninspiring rhetoric has played a role in the Indo-Pacific dislike of China, but some of that is due to historic anti-Chinese discrimination. Even in the Solomon Islands, stereotypes of the Chinese portraying them as greedy and stingy are prevalent towards the small Chinese diaspora in the major cities of the Solomon Islands. In 2006, there were riots in Honiara when Snyder Rini became prime minister because he was accused of being in bed with Taiwan or China and local Chinese businessmen. During those riots, the Honiara Chinatown was badly damaged, and Rini was forced to resign after only a few weeks in power.
Thus, when making policy, American and Solomon Islands legislators must distinguish between anti-CCP and anti-Chinese policies and ensure that the latter is never hurt by policies meant to tackle the former. Increased political friction between China and its Asian-Oceanian neighbors may often result in that abuse directed towards the Chinese diaspora in those countries. There is a whole host of reasons why that is not just immoral but counterproductive, and it should be up to nations and individuals with big platforms to actively distinguish between the CCP and the Chinese. The regional/global order that the CCP will attempt to implement in the coming decades is going to be challenged by a whole host of actors, and it’ll be tragic to witness the diaspora community get caught in the crossfire.
Before China invested in constructing the Pacific Games infrastructure for the Solomons, it (or more accurately companies heavily tied with the Chinese government) was also behind two other major investment projects. The first is a massive $825 million dollar loan to redevelop the Gold Ridge mine, which was shut down due to the “The Tensions” in the early 2000s. The second, more controversial one, was by a corporation named China Sam to lease the entire island of Tulagi to build a refinery. The deal was viewed by western experts as a way for China to build a maritime base, which would’ve greatly projected Chinese power in the Southern Pacific. However, the deal was struck down by the attorney general of the Solomon Islands.
The same Tulagi that is soiled with American blood was the one that almost became a naval base for the US’s greatest competitor in the 21st century. There is a connection that the Solomon Islands has with the great powers of the world. It was colonized by the British, occupied by the Japanese, liberated and currently supported by the Americans, and now is receiving aid and investment from China. And the possible Malaitan independence referendum provides a pertinent, and esoteric way of summarizing the flows of past and present great powers in the context of an island that has only 150,000 residents.
David Leshchiner is a second-year undergraduate student double-majoring in International Relations and Data Science. He is Editor for Foreign Affairs at the Agora.
Image courtesy Kamal Azmi, Creative Commons