China’s Mad Dash Into a Strategic Island Nation Breeds Resentment

Driving down a dirt road outside the Solomon Islands capital, past Chinese construction projects and shops where Chinese merchants sell snacks, a tribal chief tried to explain what it’s like when a rising superpower suddenly takes an interest in you. a poor and forgotten place, desperate. For development.

“At first,” said the chief, Peter Kosemu, 50, sitting in the shade on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands, “most people just wanted to see what was going on.”

He and many others have watched China plow into seemingly every corner of the South Pacific nation’s economy and politics over the past three years, raising fears in the West that Beijing is trying to establish an outpost it could play. a strategic role in any future conflict with the United States and its allies.

China has opened a huge embassy, ​​begun construction on a stadium complex and signed secret agreements with the government on security, aviation, telecommunications and more. Many islanders compare it to watching carpenters walk into their kitchen unannounced, draw plans, demolish and build, with little explanation.

The more that has passed, the more curiosity about China’s vast spending and borrowing has given way to concern and a simmering anger that comes from asking questions that have never been answered. Stadium workers, including many who commute from where Kosemu lives, complain about broken pay promises. Residents fear that the Chinese premier and officials are undermining democracy, as politicians who resisted China’s plans, or simply asked the tough questions, report that their rivals are suddenly inundated with money and pro-China messages. that the public is expected to simply accept.

“There is no proper consultation with the people,” Mr. Kosemu said. “No one is happy about it.”

For years, Beijing has thrown its wealth around the world to boost its economy, gain geopolitical influence and forcefully criticize. The Solomon Islands have been portrayed by Chinese state media as a model of what China’s international efforts can achieve, suggesting an unstoppable march toward dominance by America’s main competitor.

“Chinese modernization offers humanity a new choice,” China’s leader Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party congress in late October, as he secured a third term and was beginning to re-engage China with the world. after a Covid break.

But in the Solomon Islands, a nation of some 700,000 people and some 1,000 islands in the shipping lanes between Australia and the United States, recent experience suggests that Beijing’s confident, money-driven approach to expanding its power around the world has a cost.

For many islanders, China is productive, yes, and attentive, but they see it less as a benign partner than as an imperious and corrupting force that increases the risk of conflict.

Anti-government riots led to the burning of Chinese companies in November 2021. Among the protesters’ main concerns was the way China’s influence seemed to skew economic opportunities towards politicians and places more willing to do Beijing’s bidding. .

The government has given no sign of changing course. In September, Solomon Islands delayed its 2023 national election, declaring it lacked the capacity to host both a vote and the Pacific Games, which will be held in the new stadium, in the same year. By embracing China’s technological infrastructure, the government has also borrowed from the World Bank recently. described as unsustainable.

Some US officials worry that China’s goal in the Solomon Islands is to create a client state, securing deep-water ports and satellite communication sites. The country’s prime minister signed a security agreement in April that gives China the right to send police or warships into the country with few limitations.

As Beijing’s priorities have shifted from development to defense, fears are mounting about its heavy-handed tactics. polls show Negative views of China are skyrocketing around the world.

“China is much less successful than is commonly assumed,” said Audrye Wong, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “They think paying people is a faster and more efficient way to get what the Chinese government wants. The reality is that it often creates a backlash and it doesn’t work.”

Every night just before 6 p.m., workers pour out of the stadium complex in the capital Honiara, which is being built by a Chinese state-owned company with what officials have described as a generous $50 million grant. Chinese government dollars.

The posters boast of friendship, cooperation and security in Chinese and English. But after work recently, at a food stand across the street, the employees said that was all a lie.

“Everybody wants to go on strike because of the bad pay and the lack of security,” said Lenny Olea, 35, a driver. “We need to fix this.”

Mr. Olea said he was making $1.20 an hour less than he used to at a hotel, after promises of extra money for food and transportation never materialized. A dozen more said they had received no safety training and that their Chinese foremen communicated in sign language and hit them over the head if they did something wrong.

“They don’t understand us,” Olea said.

The Chinese embassy turned down a request from The New York Times to speak with the ambassador. The Chinese company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, did not respond to emailed questions about the worker complaints.

Since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government switched allegiance to Taiwan in 2019, saying it would help the country’s development, more Chinese companies have set up shop in the Solomon Islands. The islanders tell stories of warm interactions with Chinese merchants who immigrated decades ago. But many complain that newcomers treat workers (and customers) like pawns: Owners often record sales from a platform that allows them to stand out above all entrants.

Some provincial leaders have resisted Chinese investment.

Malaita Province Premier Daniel Suidani explained that he had received projects from Japan and other countries, but blocked China’s attempts to carry out infrastructure works because he had not seen them add value in other parts of the country. He said Chinese officials had worked with politicians in parliament who sought to undermine him by funneling aid to their districts, rather than asking him what the province needed.

“Until now, the truth is that no one has come,” he said.

That lack of consultation remains a source of frustration across the country.

The indigenous roots of the Solomon Islands include an enduring respect for dialogue. A broad conversation with the community is often required before making any major decisions.

China has operated with a more top-down approach. “What we have seen with the Chinese presence is aggressive advisers,” said Celsius Talifilu, who worked for Sogavare until late 2019 and now works for Suidani.

In places like Burns Creek, where some 10,000 people, many from Malaita, have built homes in a grassy floodplain, a lack of transparency has fueled a slow gas leak of resentment.

“People are silent in this country until they reach a climax that they can’t accept,” said Joe Kelesi, 39, an elder at the Bethlehem Worship Center. “Until something unleashes his disappointment.”

Outside the Chinese embassy, ​​billboards display eye-catching depictions of future projects and photos of Mr. Sogavare with Chinese officials. It has the feel of a movie marquee, with Mr. Sogavare as the star.

Volatile and charming, he has become more defensive as he becomes more entwined with Chinese projects. He told reporters that there will be no Chinese military bases in the country, but after seeing Chinese police train with Solomon Islands officers for the first time, he declared: “I feel more secure.”

Leaked documents point to how the security deal could have come to fruition. Minutes of Sogavare government meetings showed that, in August 2021, Chinese government money went to 39 of the 50 members of parliament from a previously Taiwan-funded “national development fund,” about $25,000 each. one.

A letter signed by Mr. Sogavare, 67, explains that the money came from the Chinese Embassy.

Internal memos seen by The Times also identify another set of slightly larger Chinese payments that followed the November 2021 riots, targeting those who had voted to prevent Sogavare from losing a vote of no confidence.

Three months later, a draft of the security agreement surfaced.

In August, Mr. Sogavare also announced that a Chinese state-owned company, China Harbor Engineering Company, would build 161 cell towers for Huawei, another Chinese company, with a $70 million loan from the Chinese government.

China Harbor offices are located in the same green building as the Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. None responded to requests for comment, and neither did Mr. Sogavare’s office.

Opposition leaders accuse China of encouraging the postponement of the elections and mounting what they say has been a bribery campaign to keep allies in power. According to civil society groups, Chinese money has been used to buy laptops for Chinese propaganda videos to be shown at community gatherings.

Peter Kenilorea Jr., the deputy leader of the opposition, said two government officials had recently offered nearly $2 million to one of his father’s cousins ​​to run against him; A little over a year ago, he added, another relative had been asked to apply for about $750,000.

The dollar amounts were well above what he believed would be possible without Chinese cash.

And China continues to spend and give. A few months ago, the Chinese ambassador gave a new truck with “China Aid” painted on the side of the psychiatric unit of a small hospital.

Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, said: “This is state capture, which happens in real life.”

The United States and Australia have tried to counter Chinese influence. Australia I will give more than $100 million in aid to the Solomon Islands this fiscal year. US military doctors also recently performed free surgeries alongside local doctors on a US hospital ship in Honiara Harbor.

“China never does this kind of thing,” said Dr. Catherine Tirri, 40, as she watched fistula surgery. “China does not do service.”

A more skeptical question followed: Would there be any American follow-up? A plan to reopen a long-shuttered embassy has been mired in red tape, limiting the US presence to three diplomats (and a dog) living and working in hotel rooms, with an interim embassy scheduled to open later this year.

Meanwhile, Kosemu, the tribal chief, said frustration with China and its proxies continues to escalate.

“People are fed up with petitioning the government and being ignored,” he said. “Protests may be the only way to get them to listen.”