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A Pacific paradise, lost to China?

An interview with Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, political advisor to Daniel Suidani, premier of the island of Malaita, about how the U.S. and the Catholic Church can help the Solomon Islands.

Catholic parish in Tanagai on Guadalcanal Island, the largest of the Solomon Islands. (Image: Torbenbrinker/Wikpedia)

Americans who have heard of the Solomon Islands might think first of US Marines fighting imperial Japanese forces on Guadalcanal in 1942. Had Japan won, it would have cut off Australia and New Zealand from its British and American allies.

In the midst of that conflict, Catholic missionaries resident in the Solomons volunteered to stay behind in territory occupied by Japan. Priests and nuns—many of them American—said Mass in clandestine settings for village congregations, gathered intelligence on enemy troop movements, and helped rescue civilians and downed pilots from capture. To cite one example from among many: on the island of Bougainville, a priest named Albert Lebel (from Brunswick, Maine) dodged Japanese patrols to lead 29 refugees through the jungle to the coast, where they were evacuated to safety by a U.S. submarine.

Eighty years later, another empire is encroaching on the Solomons—an invasion less violent but potentially just as pivotal as what faced the globe in World War Two. And once again the Catholic Church—as we’ll see—has a constructive role to play in confronting this crisis.

I found a guide to this conflict in Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, political advisor to Daniel Suidani, premier of the island of Malaita in the Solomons. In a recent interview via video, Mr. Talifilu oriented me to the challenges facing his nation.

Situated 1,100 miles northeast of Australia, the Solomons are an archipelago of over 900 islands. The capital, Honiara, is on Guadalcanal, but one-quarter of the country’s 650,000 inhabitants live on Mr. Talifilu’s home island of Malaita. Tensions between these two chief islands have simmered for years; Malaitans see the central government shortchanging them of resources and economic opportunities.

Tensions worsened in 2019 when the nation’s leader and current prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, engineered what’s referred to locally as “the switch”—transferring diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China.

Why did Sogavare do this? “It’s about money,” says Mr. Talifilu. Beijing supplies cash to the prime minister and his cronies, “no transparency needed”—far different from the accountability required in aid from other nations.

But even more important, he says, is power. “China will be a helpful partner in ensuring Sogavare stays in control as long as possible.”

Aware that most of his fellow islanders are Christians with little taste for atheistic regimes, the prime minister tried to reassure them recently by claiming Chinese Christians are “thriving” under Communist Party rule.

I asked Mr. Talifilu what he made of this claim. “A typical lie,” was his response, and he pointed to the Chinese government’s May 11 arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has spoken out on behalf of Hong Kong protesters and Catholic members of China’s underground Church. So much for Christian “thriving”.

The pro-PRC “switch” is sometimes cited as a reason for the anti-government riots last November that set Honiara’s Chinatown aflame. But Mr. Talifilu emphasized that the islanders’ anger at China goes deeper.

For years Chinese state-linked corporations (as well as Malaysian firms run by members of the ethnic Chinese diaspora) have been logging forests in the Solomons at twenty times the sustainable rate, resulting in environmental devastation for rural populations. Bribery and the use of falsified landholding documents mean that local communities see little if any profit.  90% of the felled timber goes to China.

So too with mining. Chinese-linked companies extract bauxite, gold, and nickel from the islands. Ecological safeguards are scant. In 2019 a Hong Kong-based freighter hauling bauxite spilled a hundred tons of fuel into one of the Solomons’ most sensitive coral reef systems, polluting beaches as well as the fish populations on which islanders depend for sustenance.

But Beijing’s interest goes beyond the extractive to include political and military gains. Mr. Talifilu cited the China Sam Enterprise Group (affiliated with the PRC’s defense ministry), noting how in 2019 it tried to acquire a 75-year lease on the entire island of Tulagi, a venue offering deepwater coastal berthing suitable for sizable military vessels. In 2020, China Sam made a similar attempt on a different island in the Solomons, attempting to lease land on behalf of PLA-N (the People’s Liberation Army-Navy) for what it called “naval and infrastructural projects.”

Beijing scored big in April of this year, when Sogavare authorized a secret “security cooperation” agreement with China. International uproar ensued when the text of the agreement was leaked.

Two things stand out. First, the agreement allows the national government in Honiara to request that China dispatch units of the “People’s Armed Police” (PAP) to the Solomons whenever needed “to assist in maintaining social order.”

A report from the Washington-based Institute for National Strategic Studies describes PAP as the paramilitary wing of the Chinese Communist Party, under the direct control of CCP chairman Xi Jinping. Since the 1990s, PAP has been tasked with maintaining “internal security” within China, notably in suppressing minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang. It’s also deployed to deal forcefully with quntixing shijian (“incidents involving crowds”), including mass demonstrations involving labor disputes or environmental concerns. Citizens of the Solomons who are opposed to Sogavare’s authoritarian behavior—especially in Malaita, a center of resistance—fear the prospect of Chinese police-phalanxes being dispatched against them on their own island.

The second clause of Sogavare’s secret agreement has wider regional implications. It permits China to “make ship visits to…and have stopover and transition in [the] Solomon Islands.”

This has set off alarms worldwide. Both Honiara and Beijing deny that this clause authorizes China to establish a military base in the Solomons.

But that is exactly what many fear. Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce warns of the Solomons becoming “a little Cuba on our doorstep”—echoing the October 1962 crisis, when the USSR built secret missile bases just 90 miles from Florida.

I asked Mr. Talifilu for his assessment. He dismissed Beijing’s denials. “Look at the South China Sea,” where China has militarized numerous islets after years of claiming it had no such intentions. “The Chinese said they wouldn’t do anything and look at what they did. So how can we trust Sogavare and the Chinese?”

To conclude our conversation, I asked Mr. Talifilu what the US can do to help the Solomons today.

He praised the USAID SCALE program (“Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods, and Environment”), which has fostered local development in the Solomon Islands. “Go beyond Honiara,” he urged, and work directly in provinces like Malaita (which has suffered from underdevelopment and neglect by the central government).

“What I like about the American style,” he said, “is that it involves the private sector,” not just support that is funneled from one national government to another. “Reach out through NGOs and businesses. Work through churches, especially the Catholic Church, to establish more schools. Help set up education programs that encourage ideals of democracy.”

Mr. Talifilu’s reference to the Church recalls the long-established network of Catholic missions in the islands (dating back to the nineteenth century). The Marist, Salesian, and Vincentian orders have provided elementary education, technical and vocational training, and basic infrastructure projects for impoverished and marginalized populations throughout the islands. The Church’s long history of educating islanders makes it a natural conduit for conveying the principles of participatory governance envisioned by Mr. Talifilu.

“People in the Solomons still have good memories of Americans from the war,” he said in conclusion. “We want you back—not militarily, but to help with economic and especially democratic development.”

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About David Pinault 4 Articles
David Pinault is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of two titles from Ignatius Press: The Crucifix on Mecca's Front Porch: A Christian's Companion for the Study of Islam (2018) and the novel Providence Blue: A Fantasy Quest (2021).

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