Chinese Police Could Crush Solomon Islands Opposition

Government critics fear security pact consequences.

By , a freelance journalist based in New Zealand.
Two men walk past a row of guards in uniform.
Two men walk past a row of guards in uniform.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang walk by honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, there has been serious concern in the West that Beijing will establish a military foothold in the Pacific. But the deal’s critics in the region worry about a more pernicious and immediate threat: They fear that the heightened policing and greater telecommunications links that will likely follow the pact—and any future agreements with China in the region—will undermine democratic freedoms.

In the Solomon Islands, the politics of relations with Beijing have mapped onto contentious domestic divides: Many of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s supporters are pro-China, while opposition parties and his critics are largely not, with some still backing ties to Taiwan, once a major donor to the country. Polarization worsened in 2019, when the government switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. Sogavare’s critics suggest that China used development funding and aid as a lever to ensure diplomatic support from Sogavare and the multiparty coalition government he heads. Several members of Parliament and one provincial premier have said they were offered bribes to back one side or the other during this tug-of-war.

Allegations of Beijing’s corrupting influence contributed to unrest in the capital of Honiara late last year, when protesters called for Sogavare to step down. Sogavare, who survived a vote of no confidence in the wake of the incident, accused political rivals of acting as “Taiwan’s agents” and instigating the violence. This month, Australian national broadcaster ABC published a report that cited documents it obtained showing that “a Chinese slush fund was activated twice last year and dispersed nearly $3 million directly to members of parliament loyal to the Prime Minister” prior to last year’s no-confidence vote. Tensions have remained high in recent months and worsened after the security pact.

Ever since China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, there has been serious concern in the West that Beijing will establish a military foothold in the Pacific. But the deal’s critics in the region worry about a more pernicious and immediate threat: They fear that the heightened policing and greater telecommunications links that will likely follow the pact—and any future agreements with China in the region—will undermine democratic freedoms.

In the Solomon Islands, the politics of relations with Beijing have mapped onto contentious domestic divides: Many of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s supporters are pro-China, while opposition parties and his critics are largely not, with some still backing ties to Taiwan, once a major donor to the country. Polarization worsened in 2019, when the government switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. Sogavare’s critics suggest that China used development funding and aid as a lever to ensure diplomatic support from Sogavare and the multiparty coalition government he heads. Several members of Parliament and one provincial premier have said they were offered bribes to back one side or the other during this tug-of-war.

Allegations of Beijing’s corrupting influence contributed to unrest in the capital of Honiara late last year, when protesters called for Sogavare to step down. Sogavare, who survived a vote of no confidence in the wake of the incident, accused political rivals of acting as “Taiwan’s agents” and instigating the violence. This month, Australian national broadcaster ABC published a report that cited documents it obtained showing that “a Chinese slush fund was activated twice last year and dispersed nearly $3 million directly to members of parliament loyal to the Prime Minister” prior to last year’s no-confidence vote. Tensions have remained high in recent months and worsened after the security pact.

Criticizing China has become a way for citizens to raise existing concerns about the Solomon Islands government—but it’s also a serious worry in its own right, the opposition says. The deal’s critics insist the threat to democracy from China is increasingly apparent.

“I’m 100 percent sure the freedom we used to enjoy is slowly disappearing,” said Israel Sibia, a church and community leader in the Solomon Islands, on July 5. “My concern is that the Solomons will be the Hong Kong of the South Pacific.”


Although the text of the final Solomon Islands agreement remains secret, a draft leaked in March afforded broad freedom of operations to Chinese security personnel and naval units in the country. It included provisions that would allow China’s security agencies to “assist in maintaining social order” on the island’s soil and provide personnel with “legal status and judicial immunity” from domestic law. Leading national newspaper the Solomon Star also reported in May that the pact allows Beijing to spy on electronic devices, citing anonymous official sources, but the Solomon Islands police has described these claims as a “blunt lie.”

Sibia anticipates greater intolerance of dissent due to the pact, particularly in response to political opinions that challenge either the government or Beijing’s influence. “I believe there’s going to be an increase of the cracking down on free speech because of the signed security pact,” he said. “They are going to do it in the name of national security.”

In June, the Solomon Islands government confirmed that police training with China has already begun. The Chinese state organ responsible for that training is the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which runs a variety of police and paramilitary units inside China.

Opposition politicians in the country worry about the MPS’s influence. “I am very, very concerned about the MPS being stationed here,” opposition leader Matthew Wale told Foreign Policy on June 21. “I fear very much that this security agreement will be the basis for the erosion of our democracy.”

“I fear very much that this security agreement will be the basis for the erosion of our democracy.”

The MPS’s remit is the maintenance of social order—meaning the party’s rule—in China itself, but that often extends to the persecution of ethnically Chinese dissidents abroad. While overseas intelligence activities are largely the focus of a different agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the MPS has been involved in some incidents. That’s included several kidnapping cases, even of Chinese-born dissidents who hold foreign citizenship. Beijing sees the Chinese diaspora as a source of political instability and attempts to control it closely. While there’s no strong Chinese dissident presence in the Pacific islands, there’s a substantial and growing diaspora community of workers in everything including construction, logging, and fishing. The MPS has an inherent interest in monitoring them.

It’s possible that Beijing may return the favor for Pacific governments, putting its own surveillance resources at their disposal to track and control dissidents both at home and abroad. The MPS regularly monitors journalists inside China, while the MSS has harassed foreign analysts abroad. There’s already precedent for loaning these resources to other autocrats: In 2016, for instance, the MPS placed Wall Street Journal reporters in Hong Kong investigating part of the border-spanning 1MDB Malaysian corruption scandal under “full operational surveillance” at the Malaysian government’s request.

But this would come with inherent political risks for China, as the Malaysian case shows. The Chinese government had bet heavily on ties with the administration of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, which dramatically crumbled after losing general elections in 2018. Najib himself faces a long imprisonment if his final appeal falls short this month, and the surveillance request was discovered by the new Malaysian government. Autocratic politics are a risky game: The MPS official who granted the request, Sun Lijun, was purged himself in 2020. The recent flight of the Chinese-linked Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka is another reminder of how close reliance on corrupt elites can backfire.

In the meantime, though, Sogavare’s critics see an influx of Chinese personnel as a direct risk. In a country of around 700,000 people, even the importation of a small group of well-trained personnel, who may be granted the freedom to operate above the law, could pose a meaningful threat to civic resistance to central authority. Wale foresees “a general intimidation of provincial governments to toe the line from Sogavare and to have MPS aid Sogavare in that process.”

There have long been tensions between the provinces and the central government, which only worsened after the lack of consultation with provincial premiers prior to the leak of the draft security pact. (Sogavare said the move was not the result of “devious intention, nor … secret plan,” but was rather done to protect Solomon Islanders from future unrest.)

Wale singled out Malaita province, the most populous province in the country, as a potential target. Malaita was accorded a high degree of autonomy under the 2000 Townsville agreement, which ended years of civil strife between rival militias in the country, and in 2019, after Honiara switched ties to China, Malaita Provincial Premier Daniel Suidani issued a decree banning Chinese state investment in the province.

Already, Celsus Talifilu, Suidani’s senior advisor, says that Solomon Islands authorities have targeted Malaita. Since Talifilu leaked the draft of the proposed bilateral agreement in March, he said he has heard of the police allegedly pressuring Malaitans to inform on people involved in the riot late last year, when crowds attacked government buildings as well as Chinese businesses in Honiara as tensions over China’s influence on domestic politics rose.

“Lately, there were some people in Malaita province that went to the police to speak on issues relating to the riot,” Talifilu said on June 18. “What I heard from them was that the police were trying to intimidate them, to solicit information about who was behind [the riot], and even promising them money for information.”

“What we are seeing is that an institution of state is being used to clamp down on those that are opposed to the current government,” he said, adding that his abiding concern is that security pretexts will be used to justify future clampdowns on legitimate protest.

Although Chinese personnel have not yet been involved in this process, Talifilu said that his “biggest fear” is that “in the event that there is some unrest because of the current government, [a foreign country will] get to be involved in suppressing dissent,” noting that, per the leaked draft, Chinese personnel, if invited to intervene by Honiara, would be free to act above the law.

A Solomon Islands government spokesperson did not respond to request for comment on Sibia’s and Talifilu’s allegations as well as concerns about the security pact’s potential threats to democracy.


Beijing’s influence on the country’s policing is only set to grow. During his visit to the Solomon Islands in May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that a Beijing-funded training center in Honiara and a new police academy may be established. Last month, Sogavare indicated he is seeking to establish a permanent arrangement with Chinese police, run through MPS, to prevent future uprisings. On Aug. 1, Michael Aluvolomo, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force’s transnational crime unit inspector, did not rule out the possibility that Chinese law enforcement officers would work within the country’s police force.

China is also seeking to expand its influence in the wider region. A month after Beijing signed the security pact, Wang toured a succession of Pacific states, proposing new agreements on closer trade, policing, and security ties, though no new deals have been inked yet.

Still, Shailendra Singh, a journalism academic at the University of the South Pacific, said that while challenges exist, “the Pacific region has strong democratic culture” with a media “configured on the separation of powers principles” that will seek to hold power to account, even as geopolitical tensions continue to a cast a shadow on domestic affairs.

Yet while it’s perhaps unlikely that Beijing will overtly intervene in the political affairs of Pacific democracies, Singh said on June 23, it could offer the tools that incumbent governments may want to use to undermine their opponents: “Once China gains enough influence and traction in a Pacific island state, can it persuade national leaders to adopt some of its surveillance tactics and technology?”

Yet in a body blow to democratic culture and media freedoms in the country, Sogavare has forbidden the national broadcaster SIBC from running stories critical of his government, saying that much of the outlet’s previously unvetted reporting was biased and misleading.

“I think the intention is to have state-controlled media: newspapers, radio, and TV,” said Dorothy Wickham, a journalist and board member of the Media Association of Solomon Islands, on July 23, noting that the prime minister has argued in Parliament that “the mainstream media [in the Solomons] is being manipulated by foreign interests.”

The central government in Honiara is “in a relationship with China, where it can actually copy the way China deals with the media,” she said. “That’s my biggest concern.”

Correction, Aug. 11, 2022: Due to an editing error, the previous version of this article misstated the status of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s legal case.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand. His work has appeared in a range of international outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, the Guardian, and NBC News. Twitter: @EmanuelStoakes

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