Sogavare’s new Chinese enforcers a test for a fragile democracy

This article by Professor Rory Medcalf first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 5 May 2022.

Concerns over a possible Chinese military base in Solomon Islands obscure a more immediate risk from Beijing’s security agreement with Australia’s Pacific neighbour.

That is the very real prospect of China’s paramilitary police becoming the go-to provider of internal security in this fractured democracy.

This could lead to a vicious circle of repression and chaos.

A catalyst for rioting in Honiara has been anger at the government’s new closeness to China, so using Chinese forces to suppress such discontent will ultimately aggravate it.

The people of Solomon Islands will bear the brunt, but the tide of consequences will touch all South Pacific democracies and inevitably Australia.

The text of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s controversial agreement with China is yet to be released. But the scope of a leaked draft included the option of China deploying armed police and troops ‘to assist in maintaining social order’ and protecting ‘Chinese personnel and major projects’.

One obvious danger here is in the brutal methods and insensitivity to local circumstances that such a force would bring, if the experiences of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet mean much.

Australia’s director-general of national intelligence, Andrew Shearer, openly warned along these lines last week.

It’s hard to be reassured by subsequent comments from Solomon Islands High Commissioner to Canberra, Robert Sisilo, that any Chinese forces in the country - police or even soldiers - would be ‘under the command of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force’.

Of course, that ought to be the case. But it would be astounding to imagine the People’s Liberation Army or its militarised People’s Armed Police seriously taking foreign orders even slightly at odds with the interests of the Communist Party of China, of which they are essentially armed wings.

Sogavare’s own statements on domestic security are deeply inconsistent, raising questions about his real agenda.

He has claimed that Australia, New Zealand and Pacific support for his country was still ‘inadequate to deal with our hard internal threats’, and insists - without foundation - that Australian forces sent in response to last November’s riots had instructions not to protect Chinese interests.

No wonder that some opposition figures speculate that the besieged leader is really looking for enforcers and protectors of his own hold on power.

In plenty of less democratic societies, it has been common practice in history for leaders out of touch with their people to turn to foreign protection, and in the long run it does them little good.

Already the government has been accused of using its own police to intimidate journalists trying to film the prime minister outside the national parliament.

It may be a stretch of the imagination to envisage a Sogavare government using foreign forces for political ends, but the rapidly evolving Chinese presence in the Pacific continues to push the boundaries of what may once have been deemed fanciful.

Indeed, it is conceivable that Chinese forces will furnish ‘security’ in a future election in which their very presence will be one of the key policy disputes.

Even if the use of Chinese forces is limited to protecting Chinese interests from street violence, this is likely to worsen strife in the long run.

Chinese riot tactics will further endanger a fragile democracy, where concerns about unemployment and economic disparity mix with political rivalries, the scars of previous civil conflict, ethnic and provincial differences, and contending loyalties to China or Taiwan.

And consider the first time Chinese officers use serious or lethal force. It not as if Chinese authorities have not considered it.

The Chinese embassy has previously sought to import machine guns and a sniper rifle, and presumably more such requests will be made - and this time accepted - under the new agreement.

In the long run, as has been the pattern throughout the history of empires, a pattern of resistance and reaction will rationalise a larger Chinese presence in the Pacific more akin to occupation than invited guests.
But it could also prove politically unsustainable and lead to eventual withdrawal, generating a whole new vacuum of order and return to civil conflict even worse than before.

None of which is consistent with the Pacific way of consultation and consent that is being so widely called for.

Of course, this is all a warning to Australia and other larger democracies seeking to influence outcomes.

We need to take intense care in the pressure we apply, not only to Prime Minister Sogavare personally but to the whole system of governance in our neighbour.

Such messages are being reinforced by respected Pacific academics like Anna Powles from New Zealand and Henry Ivarature from Papua New Guinea, now my colleague at the Australian National University.

Dr Ivarature draws parallels with the Sandline affair in Port Moresby in 1997, where the beleaguered government of Julius Chan secretly engaged international mercenaries to crush separatists in Bougainville.

There Australia’s diplomatic intervention was ultimately stabilising, but incredible delicacy was required, including in helping manage the stand-down from PNG’s military revolt and - with New Zealand taking a lead - paving the way to the Bougainville peace process.

Likewise, exceptional grassroots diplomacy - highly sensitive to local concerns - was required by Australia, New Zealand and Pacific partners in framing their security intervention in Solomon Islands in 2003.

For whoever wins the right to advance Australia’s interests on 21 May, Solomon Islands will pose an immediate test for the true quality of our diplomacy and what it means to be a Pacific partner.

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Sogavare’s new Chinese enforcers a test for a fragile democracy

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