China is winning, especially in the smaller countries. But as it refines its steps, and faces few counters, it will gain confidence and allies and move to bigger targets.
Alexandria, US: 2021 was a good year for China. And, unless something changes, 2022 is looking to be even better.
In the last year, headline after headline announced Chinese advances in comprehensive power projection. A few examples: China’s build up on (and possibly inside) the Indian border; the very public testing of its “game changing” new weapons; Beijing’s expansionist new border law; the PLA Navy sailing ships through Japanese waters—with the Russians; the election of their man on the Executive Committee of Interpol; the crushing of any semblance of independent media in Hong Kong; Nicaragua not just switching from Taiwan to the PRC, but giving the former Taiwanese embassy to China.
Actually, most of that was just in the past few months. The year as a whole was an even bigger win as countries around the world were caught up in Covid-response related paroxysm of social and economic disruptions.
As shopping, education, governance and more moved increasingly online, PRC hackers, trolls, blackmailers, thieves, drug dealers, money launderers, social media manipulators, etc., were waiting to inflict even more damage. Meanwhile, in spite of consumers wanting to move away from PRC products, exports boomed as powerful online retailers obfuscated country of origin labels, driving ever more business towards the PRC.
Yes, there are domestic problems in China. But, internationally, the wins for Beijing keep coming, and people around the world are worse off for it. It doesn’t have to be this way, but for 2022 to be different, we need to try some new approaches—including a bigger role for India.
To see what that could mean, let’s take a look at a situation in which China won, the people of the country lost, and how it could have gone differently—and still might.
HOW THE SOLOMON ISLANDS COULD HAVE BEEN A BEACON OF HOPE
Someone in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs deserves a raise. Just look at the way they handled the Solomon Islands. It took only around two years for some smart PRC person/team to move it from a country that recognized Taiwan to one that not only recognizes China but—thanks in part to a deft outmaneuvering of Australia—was welcoming Chinese “police advisors” to help put down those in the country protesting the corrupt, pro-PRC Prime Minister Sogavare. Well played.
The way it was managed followed a predictable path—making the fact it wasn’t effectively countered even more troublesome.
These were the steps—steps that are being replicated in a range of other countries at this very moment. And these are the ways those steps could have been countered—benefitting the people of the Solomons and the security of the region.
Step One: Setting the groundwork. Even though Solomon Islands recognized Taiwan, the PRC maintained a consistent presence in the country, fronted by the business sector. It actively courted decision-makers, gathered intelligence and identified resistance.
During this phase, many in the country were concerned that the Prime Minister might unilaterally flip and quiet appeals were made to the United States and others. The United States was slow to act, exacerbated by the fact that it doesn’t even have an embassy in the country—a country where thousands of Americans died during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal fighting to liberate it. India also doesn’t have an embassy in the Solomons.
Washington was reliant on advice from Australia, which had led a peacekeeping mission in the country from 2003-2017. However, either Canberra was not aware of how close the country was to switching, or didn’t think it was an issue of concern. Either way, not good.
Additionally, at the end of the country’s civil war, the Townsville Peace Agreement (2000) was signed by the main parties, creating a path forward. However, in spite of the extended Australian presence in the country, key provisions related to political and socio-economic issues weren’t put into action. This left unaddressed fractures that could be—and were—utilized by malign forces to gain leverage.
Counter: During this phase, several actions could have made a difference including: the presence of diplomatic missions from the United States, India or others, that could give a more rounded assessment of the ground situation and offer more options to those looking to escape the PRC’s grasp; media investigations into corrupt practices, including those laundering their money via Australia; and a serious attempt to resolve some of the underlying political cleavages.
Step Two: Consolidation. Once the switch from Taiwan to China was announced in September 2019, Beijing moved quickly to try to embed itself before there could be any serious response. This included an attempt by a Chinese state owned company to lease an entire island with a deepwater port within days of the switch. The effort failed, largely because of local opposition.
But PRC efforts continued and were relentless, focused and well funded. Loyal politicians and business leaders were rewarded, and those standing in the way of PRC political or economic influence were targeted.
During this phase, there was brave and vocal concern about how PRC-linked corruption was distorting the politics and economics of the country, and could potentially lead to violence. Those local leaders found themselves largely ignored by regional diplomats, with one being told, “we don’t want to upset the apple cart”. Additionally, coverage about the negative effects of CCP influence in the country was largely discounted by regional academics and journalists, muting the urgency of the situation.
Counter: During this period, local leaders were trying to raise the alarm that there was a serious risk of destabilization. There were requests for relatively minor or run-of-the mill things that would have shown that those standing up for their communities in the face of PRC aggression weren’t being abandoned—small amounts of funding for a “festival of democracy” to raise awareness about what was at stake, an MRI machine, transparency in a World Bank project. All were ignored. Again, better diplomatic and media coverage could have been instrumental.
Also, unlike China, once Taiwan was derecognized, it largely pulled out (with the notable exceptions of shipments of Covid-related supplies and a humanitarian intervention to ensure a local leader received life-saving medical care). It didn’t stay in the country to keep relationships going—a short-sighted move given that, as a democracy, there was the possibility that an election could bring a new government more sympathetic to Taipei.
Step Three: Using Crisis to Advance More Quickly. Once the predicted violence broke out in the form of protests against the corrupt pro-PRC Prime Minister Sogavare, the PRC and its partners in the PMO did a clever thing. Sogavare called the Australians for “peacekeepers” to “restore order”. The Australians complied.
Sogavare had been on the ropes—with risk of defection from some of his MPs, and a looming vote of no confidence. The police had asked him to resign. With the arrival of the Australians, he could turn to those MPs and say “see, I’m backed by both the Chinese and the Australians—are you sure you want to go up against me?” They saved him.
At the time, one argument in Canberra for the intervention was that if the Australians didn’t go in, Sogavare would call in the Chinese. So, what happened? The Australians went in, justifying interventions (though by the time they arrived all the protests had ended anyway). And now that they are heading home—perhaps having realized they were snookered—the Chinese are sending in police trainers and equipment and no one can complain because the Australians were just there. Nicely done.
Counter: But it’s not over. There are still ways to help the people of the Solomons. They will tell you. In fact, they have. Apart from more and varied diplomatic outreach and corruption investigations, what they want is what they agreed to more than twenty years ago—a structure that is much more difficult for the PRC (or any outsiders) to subvert.
The government of the most populous province in the Solomons, Malaita, has asked the United National Security Council to send investigators to see if the terms of the Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA) have been met. Sogavare was Prime Minister when it was signed back in 2000, and so has no justification for standing in the way.
This is where India can come in. The answer is not more securitization of by Australia or China, it is a patient engagement with local leaders on how to implement an agreement that is already signed. Currently the media has inaccurately painted this as a China versus the US issue (had the US actually been involved, this may never have become an issue. This is a China expanding its sphere of influence issue). India coming in as an impartial mediator/observer makes it much more difficult to push that narrative, and opens up a new way forward.
It is unlikely Sogavare actually wants the issue resolved, but given the TPA is deposited with the UN, perhaps that is a venue through which India and partners can address the situation.
It’s worth trying because it’s not just the Solomons. All over the world China is trying to isolate and pick off countries one by one—Lithuania, Kiribati, Nicaragua. And in each of those countries, there are people trying to resist, trying to stay free. Currently, China is winning especially in the smaller countries. But as it refines its steps, and faces few counters, it will gain confidence and allies and move to bigger targets.
2022 could be the year that the people of the Solomons are crushed by a PRC-trained police force, and that island lease—and much more—finally goes through.
Or, it could be the year that its corrupt leaders leave office and a new administration chooses a different path. The people of the Solomons—and many other countries around the world—are fighting hard for their future. They are doing their part. Is this the year we will do ours?
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.