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Sogavare staging a coup with Chinese characteristics

By Anthony Bergin and Cleo Paskal

Last week dignitaries, including US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, gathered for a dawn ceremony on Bloody Ridge in Solomon Islands to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the brutal battle for Guadalcanal.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare didn’t bother turning up to the commemoration. But US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman attended. She said afterwards that she “really felt sorry” for Sogavare, as it was a “missed opportunity” for the Prime Minister to reflect on how the Japanese were turned back during a key moment in WWII.

Sogavare was in fact busy putting forward a bill to postpone the scheduled 2023 elections. His excuse for postponing is the island country hosting next year’s Pacific Games and they don’t have the budget for both the games and an election. The proposed delay is very unpopular and will stir unrest with possible violence. Alarm bells should be going off in Canberra. The situation is dangerous.

It’s likely Sogavare and his backers in Beijing are hoping for more “unrest” so they can activate the China security deal. That would provide an even stronger excuse to hold off on elections, (that Sogavare is likely to lose) for even longer.

There are now Chinese police trainers in the country. Sogavare has publicly thanked the Chinese ambassador for 22 police vehicles, 30 motorcycles, two police water cannons, eight police drones and advanced close personal protection equipment.

Democracy delayed is democracy denied. Sogavare’s move is an attempted coup against the people of Solomon Islands. He’s trying to turn his country into a clone of China, by taking control of media, signing secret security deals, using bribery to change the Constitution and preparing to instigate and then crush dissent.

International Development and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said after his recent visit to Honiara that he had a “warm and friendly” meeting with Sogavare. But he didn’t indicate he’d raised any concerns with the Prime Minister about postponing the election.

More concerning, soon after Sogavare announced he was going to try to postpone the elections because of the games, Australia announced it was giving Sogavare’s government $16.68m to stage them. The money was to put towards accommodation for visiting athletes, sporting equipment and building a venue for water sports.

We should have only given the Pacific Games money on condition that Sogavare holds the election on time. The whole point of China’s support for the games is to cement Sogavare in power with public support. We should stop doing things that make the situation worse.

Solomon Islanders don’t like the direction Sogavare is taking which is why he’s trying to keep them from the ballot box. It’s profoundly anti-democratic. Respected opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr says Australia should offer to fund elections in Solomon Islands next year. That should only be on the basis that we’d send in electoral observers and the Australian Electoral Commission assist.

We could also help by investigating disproportionate assets held in Australia by those around Sogavare. Additionally, we should support local media and organisations in Solomon Islands investigating corruption.

Those found guilty of corruption should not be eligible for visas to Australia if the Pacific Island Forum is serious about being a force for good in the region. Not even transit visas.

At the same time, Pacific Island countries often complain that they’re pawns in great power games and they want to exercise their agency. So now’s their moment to take control and not let themselves be used to oppress members of their Pacific family. They should make it clear that any country going to the games is supporting the suppression of democracy in Solomons. Athletes participating are saying their chance at a medal is more important than a Solomon Islander’s right to vote.

It’s a make or break moment for the PIF, the key regional body. It should either offer to assist in making the elections possible or recommend that countries don’t participate in the games if elections aren’t held.

This isn’t now business as usual with Sogavare. It’s a coup with Chinese characteristics, and if it’s not stopped in the Solomons, it will spread. Kiribati is already on the continuum, and there’s potential for serious, (and avoidable) violence in the Solomons’ Malaita province, Bougainville and possibly New Caledonia. East Timor is also on China’s menu, bringing it ever closer to the Indo-Pacific chokepoints. The more proxies China can gather to its fold the stronger it will get, and the more damage it will do in the region. Currently, it’s Solomon Islanders who are on the front line. If they don’t get back-up, and they fall, it may in the end result in new dawn ceremonies.

Cleo Paskal is senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies. Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: The Australian on 15 Aug 2022