Most Pacific Island countries have formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. But at both the local and national level, some leaders are raising concerns about Chinese bribery, violations of sovereignty, clandestine intelligence operations and political interference in their countries, as well as the possibility that China may invade Taiwan. As Beijing forces its agenda on Pacific Island countries and competes with the United States for influence in the region, Washington should lead by example and build partnerships with the Pacific Islands that emphasize consulting with them as equals and focusing on areas of common interest, like climate change.
USIP's Camilla Pohle-Anderson and Jennifer Staats examine recent developments in Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia and explore the domestic implications of greater Chinese involvement for countries across the Pacific Islands region.
How have Solomon Islands’ relations with China and Taiwan impacted domestic politics?
Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, has drawn increased international attention as it emerges as a battleground for influence between China and Taiwan. The national government switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, but Malaita has resisted the change, which has resulted in increased tensions between the capital and the influential province.
These tensions around the country’s relationship with China have had a direct effect on domestic politics within Solomon Islands. Daniel Suidani served as the premier of Malaita Province from June 2019 to February 2023. Suidani initially gained popularity because of his willingness to stand up to the national government — and because his suspicions about China are shared by many Malaitans, who are wary of senior leaders taking bribes from Chinese companies, especially state-owned enterprises. In 2019, Suidani issued a declaration called the Auki Communiqué that criticized the lack of transparency behind the switch in official diplomatic recognition, expressed skepticism about China’s intentions and put a moratorium on Chinese investment and development in Malaita. Suidani also pushed for Malaita to hold an independence referendum, which the national government declared illegal.
In April 2022, Solomon Islands signed an unprecedented security pact with China that allows Chinese security forces to maintain social order at Honiara’s request. Suidani criticized the security pact, expressing concerns that if it were invoked by the national government, Chinese police forces could target Malaita. This reflects Malaitans suspicions both of China and of the national government, which some fear is becoming less democratic and more authoritarian. Suidani has also accused China of using bribery to influence Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government.
In April 2023, Suidani was ousted in a vote of no confidence that his supporters believe was orchestrated by Sogavare to punish the former premier for challenging national policy. After the vote, Solomon Islands police fired tear gas on protesters rallying in support of Suidani in Malaita’s capital, Auki. The pressure campaign continued into last month, when the Solomon Islands government declared Suidani unfit for office in the Malaita assembly due to his anti-China stance. The new Malaita government, which is more aligned with the national government in Honiara and has a more favorable view of Beijing, is moving to undo the Auki Communiqué and open the province to investors from China.
It is important to note that tensions between Malaita and Guadalcanal, where Honiara is located, stretch back decades, with the China-Taiwan issue representing only one part of long-standing differences. Between 1998 and 2003, civil unrest erupted between Malaitans and Guales because of uneven access to land and resources. Today there continue to be tensions over the uneven development between the capital and the provinces, including Malaita, as well as tensions over the role of the national government in administering the provinces.
How have Beijing’s policies impacted the Federated States of Micronesia?
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) has maintained diplomatic relations with China since 1989. But in early March, outgoing FSM President David Panuelo wrote a scathing letter accusing China of political warfare and elite capture in his country and recommending that the FSM switch recognition to Taiwan.
No FSM president has ever been so openly critical of China — or has publicly advocated for a switch in diplomatic recognition. Panuelo's detailed letter, running over a dozen pages, criticized China for conducting clandestine intelligence operations, interfering in government affairs, disregarding FSM’s sovereignty and bribing government officials to further Beijing’s interests.
Panuelo described how Chinese officials had frequently given gifts and envelopes of cash to members of the government, how China had supported secessionist movements in the country, how Chinese officials had pressured the FSM to accept Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and how Chinese research vessels had conducted espionage. Panuelo also described how, in July 2022 during the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, he had been followed by men who worked for the Chinese Embassy, one of whom was an intelligence officer. Then, in early April, Panuelo made fresh allegations that China had brought weapons into the FSM.
Panuelo’s letter in March represents his harshest rebuke of Beijing yet, but it not an about-face. Panuelo has expressed skepticism of Chinese engagement in the past, last year urging Sogavare to reconsider signing the security pact with Beijing, and warning against Pacific Island countries accepting China’s region-wide policing and security cooperation deal. Panuelo’s letter also reflects the detrimental effects of China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy — the former president describes changing his phone number multiple times to avoid incessant phone calls from the Chinese ambassador.
Despite the concerns raised by Panuelo, the FSM Congress voted in early April to reaffirm the FSM's ties to China. This effort was led by Wesley Simina, who was elected as FSM’s new president last week. Simina has pledged to continue formal diplomatic relations with Beijing but is also expected to sustain close ties with the United States. Later this month, Simina is expected to formally sign an agreement with Washington to renew U.S. funding for the Compact of Free Association.
How is the rest of the region responding?
It may be too soon to tell what effect Panuelo’s letter will have in the region more broadly. However, there has been one immediate effect: Fijian President Sitiveni Rabuka announced in early April that his government is investigating Panuelo's allegations of Chinese spying in Fiji. Rabuka said in an interview that the allegations, if proven true, would be a "concern," and that a foreign power operating in such a way in Fiji's sovereign territory is "almost a slap in the face." Rabuka has himself already signaled a slight shift on China, cancelling a policing agreement with Beijing earlier this year and allowing Taiwan to use its official name for its representative office in the country.
The developments in Solomon Islands and the FSM also echo broader concerns in the Pacific that China’s government is offering personal benefits to government and business leaders in an effort to sway their opinion of China and mute potential criticism of Beijing. Across the Pacific, like elsewhere, this often takes the form of eye-popping infrastructure projects, but it can also look like the various types of “political warfare” outlined in Panuelo’s letter.
The question of Taiwan recognition also looms large over the region. Kiribati and Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019; today, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Tuvalu are the only states in the Pacific that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. As China becomes a more prominent factor in domestic political discussions, small states that can only absorb a certain amount of foreign investment may prefer to align with a trusted, democratic, transparent partner like Taiwan rather than face the risk of “political warfare” from Beijing.
Pacific Island countries are also increasingly considering relations with Beijing and Taipei in the context of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Last month, Palauan President Surangel Whipps, Jr. urged regional partners to support Taiwan, noting that “tensions are rising” and that the Pacific Islands region does not want to witness another World War. Concerns about a potential invasion of Taiwan were also outlined in Panuelo’s letter.
Whether it’s concern about a future conflict, or frustrations with Chinese bribery, these case studies show that support for Beijing is by no means assured even in countries that recognize it, and Pacific Island leaders are exhibiting a greater willingness to call China out and to investigate China’s actions. Of course, neither Solomon Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia nor Fiji are likely to switch recognition to Taipei anytime soon. But Beijing’s actions may be increasingly alienating Pacific Island leaders.
When leaders like Suidani and Panuelo criticize China, it may be tempting for Washington to use their statements as political point-scoring against Beijing — especially since Beijing is likely to use Biden’s cancelled visit to Papua New Guinea to paint Washington as uncommitted. However, the United States would be better served by letting China’s approach speak for itself. There is a perception in the Pacific Islands that U.S. reengagement is only about countering China, not true partnership. The best way for Washington to mitigate this perception is to continue implementing the Pacific Partnership Strategy — and let the U.S. approach speak for itself as well.