#4 - On the Importance of 岛屿 - Competition in Oceania
岛屿 - Dao3 Yu3 – Islands
Once US forces drafted the after-action review for the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign known as Operation Watchtower, the Solomon Islands left Washington’s strategic consciousness. This lack of attention has not yet been remedied, and is quite dangerous when considering the PRC’s investment in the country.
The Solomon Islands is a double-chain archipelago consisting of six major islands and over 900 smaller ones. Mountainous, heavily forested terrain predominates. This dual island chain is located in the South Pacific, over 1000 miles from Australia across the Coral Sea and about 3,500 miles from Hawai’i across the Pacific Ocean.
During WWII, the Japanese Empire expanded into the Solomon chain most likely for two primary reasons. The first was to block the US from approaching Asia. The Japanese military was already in a blocking position on the northern avenue of approach, by invading and occupying parts of Alaska (Primarily Attu island in the Aleutians). With the north guarded, the Imperial Japanese Army moved into the Solomon Islands to hold the southern avenue of approach.
The second primary reason was that the Imperial Japanese Navy, by holding the Solomons, could begin the blockade of Australia and New Zealand. By maintaining both the northern and southern approaches, Tokyo would be able to isolate the key WWII American allies of Russia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Fortunately for strategic thinkers, the terrain of the earth rarely if ever changes, allowing history to be a guide for our present. The northern and southern approaches to Asia run through the same series of islands today, making the modern country of Solomon Islands strategically significant in the competition between the US and PRC.
Both Taiwan and the PRC recognized this fact decades ago, and have been jostling for influence in the Solomons for a long time. Whoever controls the approach to Taiwan is better able downstream to either blockade or supply Taiwan itself. In the contest for Solomons Islands, Taipei has deployed technical assistance in agriculture and health, government scholarships, small scale infrastructure projects, and rural constituency development funds (essentially cash payments). Taipei’s strategy seems to be centered around fostering sustainable people to people level assistance. It has been particularly effective on the Solomon island of Malaita, where the population is pro-Taiwan.
The PRC’s Solomon Islands strategy is similar to the one it uses against all other countries; elite capture. Beijing orients against a target country, decides who the selectorate is (who actually makes the most important decisions), and then seeks to co-opt, bribe, or coerce those key individuals into supporting the PRC’s goals. In this vein, Beijing has used larger-scale infrastructure projects and a larger rural constituency fund to provide cash payouts. Money from Beijing is being deposited directly into individual Solomon Islander’s bank accounts, likely providing the PRC with a gift of personal data they will stash away.
PRC elite capture has been particularly effective against Solomon Islands’ current leader, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019. The process was quite controversial and led to Sogavare terminating three members of his own cabinet as well as forcibly removing several members of Solomon Islands parliament that abstained from the vote.
While Sogavare’s political base lies in his home of East Choiseul (Solomon Islands northernmost main island adjacent to Papua New Guinean territory), he is clearly adept at gathering the support of other members of the parliament to push through his agenda. The thorn in his side is Daniel Suidani, the island of Malaita’s premier. While the Solomon Islands government has officially switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, the island of Malaita has resisted by continuing to work with Taiwan and the US. Last year, the US promised $25 million in aid to Solomon Islands and plans on re-establishing the Peace Corps mission there.
The island of Malaita (the most populous in Solomon Islands) and the main island of Guadalcanal (where the capital of Honiara is located) have an ugly history of ethnic conflict. From 1999 to 2006, ethnic Gwale people from Guadalcanal and Malaitans formed bands led by warlords and fought across the island of Guadalcanal. The massive disturbance to everyday economic life along with a Solomon Islands government appeal to Australia significantly reduced the violence and fighting. Enter RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. Australia, along with New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea deployed security personnel to the Solomons, significantly improving the security environment.
It was thought that peace would hold until unrest broke out in Honiara last week. On 24 Nov, disaffected by the PRC’s corrupt influence, Mosavare’s rule, and “the switch” to PRC recognition, a mostly Malaitan group marched on the capitol. Sections of the national parliament building (constructed by the US and Solomon Islanders after WWII) were torched. Afterwards, the rioters headed to Honiara’s Chinatown, which was torched and looted, with the noticeable exception of a building flying four Taiwan/Republic of China flags.
The central government, headed by Mosavare, employed the one tactic that worked in the past to quell domestic strife: calling for Australian assistance. On or around 25 Nov, Australia deployed security personnel back to Solomon Islands. These forces are currently still operating on the ground.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
While it is natural for the US/Taiwan and the PRC to court different segments of society in other countries, it has the potential to be violently destabilizing, especially in places without robust civil institutions. The PRC’s strategy of elite capture and the US focus on influencing the citizens of a particular country creates a few vs the many dynamic.
The PRC’s long term goal in the Solomon Islands is likely to control the population and construct a significant military port and airfield. The large Chinese gold mine project on Guadalcanal will also impact Beijing’s calculations. The US will likely also seek to construct significant military installations, potentially at Bina Harbor on Malaita. This is not surprising, as Japan and then the US sought to construct these types of installations during WWII. As stated above, the Solomons is situated near the center of the US southern approach to Asia...or the PRC’s approach into the eastern Pacific.
In general, the US and allies are still reacting to PRC moves throughout the Oceania region, including Solomon Islands. This is a needless mistake, as capacity is severely limited. Building relations with any one country in Oceania does not require a large amount of resources, only sincere attention. Even one of the PRC’s signature Solomon Islands development projects, the 2023 Pacific Games National Stadium, is a smallish 10,000 seat arena (for comparison, the DC United Stadium holds 20,000). It would be a major error if the US lost out on basing rights to the PRC in Solomon Islands because of a gold mine and a stadium.
There are also clear disadvantages to working through alliances. The PRC effort is whole-of-government and unified through the Communist Party. AUKUS and other partners and allies of the US have poor strategic alignment mechanisms, as this case shows. Australia jealously guards engagement opportunities throughout Oceania, which it sees as its sphere of influence. This may be acceptable, but in this case, Australian security forces are operating against pro-Taiwan/pro government accountability protestors as well as rioters on Guadalcanal. This has the possibility of sending mixed messages when the Taiwan and US governments seem to be supporting the other side (though not the violence). Another alliance consideration is the polarizing nature of Taiwan-PRC diplomatic politics, which will affect initiatives that Washington works in close coordination with Taipei.
Finally, the PRC big data machine marches on. With likely access to the bank information of tens of thousands of Solomon Islands citizens, Beijing will attempt to do what it has done at home. Build a list of all Solomon Islands citizens along with their personal information, and then monitor them to judge how pro-Beijing each individual is. This detailed information gives the PRC a keen edge in competition for influence.