Daniel Suidani, a long-time critic of the Solomon Islands central government’s deepening ties with China, was ousted on February 7, after 17 members of the provincial assembly voted to remove him. The vote passed unanimously after the premier and his executive walked off the floor, effectively boycotting the motion.
The filed motion alleged that Suidani had illegally solicited money from a Chinese-owned mining company, as well as accusing him of financial mismanagement and improperly using government finances to pay the salaries of his personal security guards.
On February 10, 74-year-old former policeman, Martin Gaote’e Fini – who originally brought the no-confidence motion against Suidani, and is an ally of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare – was elected unopposed as the new premier of Malaita province.
It was reported that the Fini provincial government – which will only have a tenure of four months before it is due to be dissolved in May – wants “compliance” to be its main objective.
Rollen Seleso, the national minister for provincial government, said that Suidani’s government had unsuccessfully attempted to object to the legality of the no confidence motion and questioned the speaker of the assembly’s decision to allow it. However, this was disregarded by the high court, which ruled that the vote could go ahead.
An advisor to Suidani, Celcus Talifilu, issued a statement on behalf of the ousted premier, denying all allegations and questioning the legality of the vote that led to his removal.
“We are taking legal action against the speaker and the motion mover for the legal challenge as we are not satisfied with today’s motion of no confidence. We felt that today’s motion is unfair.”
Talifilu suggested that the vote was driven by Sogavare, alleging he conspired with China to have Suidani removed due to his outspoken stance on the decision by the federal government to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019.
Suidani split with the views of Honiara, campaigning against Chinese investment on the islands and condemning the 2022 security pact that could allow Chinese defense forces to be stationed there.
“Since day one this province has been under attack in numerous forms,” said Talifilu to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The speaker has aligned himself with their side to overthrow the Malaita government. This has been supported by the national government under the influence of China.”
Dr. Tess Newton Cain, senior research fellow and project lead for the Griffith Pacific Hub, told The Diplomat that use of no confidence votes in Solomon Islands is “longstanding” and is often used as a “political tactic.”
“There are a number of things at play, including competing business interests who are seeking to influence provincial politics and the use of provincial politics to establish ‘beach heads’ in advance of national elections (due in 2024),” she said.
Asked about Chinese influence, Newton Cain was more circumspect than Talifilu: “The issue of tensions over the Taiwan/China switch plays a part, yes, but it needs to be seen in its fuller context.”
In the aftermath of the vote, protests erupted in Auki, the provincial capital of Malaita. Police confirmed that tear gas was used to disperse the protesters after they claimed an officer was injured during the protests.
Since the 2019 diplomatic split from Taiwan – known as “The Switch” – Suidani has been a consistent thorn in the side of Sogavare and his administration, with tensions between Malaita and the national government deteriorating steadily.
The now former premier has refused Chinese aid and repeatedly pushed for Malaitan independence, making him a hero in eyes of many on the island. Furthermore he supports and recognizes Taiwan, banned Chinese-backed investment, and claimed that Chinese atheism doesn’t fit with the Christian elements of Malaitan life.
Talifilu, himself a former adviser to Sogavare, said the national government isn’t happy with this anti-Chinese stance.
“Some of us have been standing strong against the interests of China in the province,” he said.
The Chinese government has preserved its security deal, while simultaneously investing heavily in Solomon Islands, claiming that this is to “safeguard the interests of developing countries.” Beijing has helped fund this year’s Pacific Games, being held in Honiara, and has built schools and hospitals.
Some experts have argued that elevated Chinese influence doesn’t have broad public support and Suidani himself has accused Chinese officials of bribery.
In November 2021, angry mobs – many from Malaita – descended on Honiara’s Chinatown, looting and burning buildings while sparing ones that flew Taiwanese flags. Australian peacekeepers were called in, as was a Chinese security delegation that was later announced would become permanent.
Suidani denied instigating the violence but infuriated the government by spending large periods of the lead up in Taiwan receiving medical treatment.
He has become a figure of courageousness among conservative commentators for his outspoken position on Chinese influence in the region.
Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow at the Washington-based neoconservative think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, defended him in a recent column for an Indian newspaper. Paskal argued in the wake of Suidani defeating a previous no-confidence vote against him in October 2021 that the Chinese had attempted to orchestrate his downfall.
“Once the PRC has fully eaten the Solomons it will use it as a jumping off point for its next meal,” Paskal warned.
In Australia, Sky News has also amplified his cause. When describing Suidani’s self-described rejection of Chinese financial overtures, host Paul Murray lauded his bravery, telling viewers, “Thankfully, this bloke said no.”
Chinese investment in the Pacific region has led to a sharp response from Australia and the United States, which both pledged financial aid as well as infrastructure.
In the United States, Solomon Islands was criticized when it moved away from Taiwan. In 2019, after the switch, Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that he wanted to explore options to cut off ties with the Pacific nation. “Now I will begin exploring ways to cut off ties with #SolomonIslands including potentially ending financial assistance & restricting access to US dollars and banking,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, on January 27 of this year, the United States opened an embassy in Honiara after a 30-year hiatus. Newton Cain said that the United States accepts it has not been paying enough attention to the region in recent times.
“The US administration has admitted openly that there has been a lack of diplomatic attention in the region and in Solomon Islands more particularly,” she told The Diplomat.
“Most people see this as being driven by geostrategic concerns about the influence of China in the Western Pacific.”
Newton Cain believes Australia will be pleased with this diplomatic opening. “From Australia’s point of view, they would likely welcome increased presence from a ‘like-minded’ partner,” she said.
It remains to be seen what the removal of Daniel Suidani does for relations between Solomon Islands and its neighbors, including Australia. For China, it seems certain that Chinese leaders will welcome the removal one of their key critics in the region.