One day soon, Daniel Suidani, the former premier of Malaita Province, Solomon Islands, will walk into his interview for a U.S. short-term visa. Again.
His first application, a few weeks ago, was denied.
This second attempt is being supported by a bipartisan cross-section of heavy-hitters in the U.S. Congress, including Congressman Neal Dunn M.D. (R-Florida), Congressman Ed Case (D-Hawaii, co-chair of the Pacific Islands Caucus) and Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa, Co-Chair Pacific Islands Caucus).
The denial of the first application was a surprise. According to Dunn, one of the first to raise concerns on the issue: “The denial of Daniel Suidani’s VISA application is suspicious and unusual. Mr. Suidani displayed tremendous courage in barring CCP-linked companies from his providence while serving as Premier. He should be welcomed to the U.S. with open arms, not with more hurdles. I support his decision to reapply, and I look forward to assisting him through this process.”
At the March 23 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on the Indo-Pacific, Radewagen submitted a question to State Department witness Jane Bocklage about the status of the application.
And, on March 31, Radewagen and Case sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Blinken that reads in part: “Having had his application turned down once, we strongly encourage the timely issuance of the visa. Please provide your full and fair consideration of this request consistent with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”
Why so much attention on a visa case for a former provincial premier from a country of less than a million people? It’s because rarely does a single person come to embody the future of a region, of the battle between systems, as much as Suidani has.
A bit of background.
In April 2019 Manasseh Sogavare became the prime minister of Solomon Islands. In September, 2019, he switched Solomons’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.
In October 2019, Daniel Suidani, premier of Solomons’ most populous province, Malaita and backed by the rest of the provincial leadership including the traditional chiefs, issued the “Auki Communiqué,” calling for a moratorium on CCP-linked businesses operating in the province.
The communiqué expressed concern about development that would negatively effect the province socially, economically, environmentally, and politically, adding Malaitans recognize “freedom of religion as a fundamental right… therefore [the Malaitan provincial government] rejects the CCP and its formal systems based on atheist ideology.”
The Auki Communiqué represented not only a threat to the economic exploitation plans of Sogavare, his clique, and China, it was a direct calling out of the CCP and its domestic persecution of people of faith – to the point, according to the U.S. government, of genocide in the case of Turkic Muslims.
While intended just as a provincial policy, it was a remarkable drawing of a line in the sand that called attention to the silence and acquiescence of others. As such, from the point of view of Beijing, Suidani came to represent a threat to the legitimacy of the CCP.
Sogavare and Beijing’s proxies in Solomons began a campaign to oust Suidani and his coalition from government.
In August 2021, leaks showed direct payments from a Chinese slush fund to 39 of the 50 MPs in Solomons’ parliament, enough to ensure Sogavare could withstand a motion of no confidence as well as amend the constitution. Further unusual payments were also made to politicians who support Sogavare.
In November 2021, perceived corruption of the democratic process contributed to a large-scale protest in the capital, Honiara. Police fired teargas at peaceful demonstrators; there was rioting and the city’s Chinatown was looted.
With the demonstrations largely over, and the city being cleaned up, an Australian-led force arrived, functioning to protect Sogavare politically, and giving Sogavare the justification to also invite in China’s security forces.
In April 2022, there was confirmation Sogavare had signed a security deal with China allowing, among other things, for the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army in Solomon Islands to protect Chinese citizens and major investments and put down domestic unrest.
In August 2022, Sogavare used his paid-for majority in parliament to postpone the scheduled 2023 election, claiming the country didn’t have the money to host the Pacific Games and an election in the same year. He chose the Games over the elections.
Regardless of the concerns on the part of people of Solomons who wanted their scheduled elections, none of the other Pacific Games participant countries suggested postponing the Games until elections could be held. Australia even offered money to assist with the Games.
In August 2022, Sogavare skipped the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the battle of Guadalcanal – an event attended by U.S Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Also in August, Sogavare’s government agreed to a $66 million dollar loan from China to install 161 Huawei mobile communication towers. Malaita’s provincial government rejected the 27 Huawei towers that were to be installed in the province, reinforcing its stand against CCP-linked companies operating in the province.
That same month, the USCGC Oliver Henry, which was on an illegal fisheries patrol, couldn’t obtain entry to refuel in Solomon Islands. Solomons then blocked all foreign naval port visits. It later said it would allow in Australian and New Zealand vessels but, as of last reporting, the United States is still blocked.
There is one known exception. Recently the U.S. said it would send the hospital ship Mercy to the Pacific Games – something that politically benefits Sogavare.
After years of trying, in February 2023, the major, well-funded political warfare operation against those in Solomons resisting China’s expansion, including in Malaita province, resulted in the successful influencing of just enough members of the provincial assembly to strip the premiership from the symbol of that resistance, Daniel Suidani, and for Sogavare’s allies to gain control of the assembly.
The first announced agenda item of the new Malaita government was to cancel the Auki Communiqué banning CCP-linked businesses from operating in the province.
On March 4, Alfred Sasako, vice president of the Solomon Islands China Friendship Association, in an apparent disinformation campaign designed to make contact with Suidani toxic, wrote that around the time of the riots, Suidani met Americans to arrange for a hit squad to kill Sogavare. Suidani is suing.
In March 2023, Suidani was invited by an environmental organization to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues being held in New York in April, 2023. Suidani applied for a U.S. visa to attend.
Around March 17, the United States denied Suidani’s visa application.
On March 21, U.S. National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell visited Solomon Islands, posed for photos with Sogavare, and decried “disinformation and smears” about the United States, seemingly alluding to the Sasako article.
On March 22, Solomon Islands announced that a Chinese state-owned company had won the bid to redevelop the port in Honiara, which is on the island of Guadalcanal, where so many Americans died in battle in World War II.
What is going on now in Solomon Islands is the political warfare equivalent of that battle and, so far, China has been winning.
On March 25, another article by Sasako quoted a Solomons official as saying, “The U.S. told the meeting in Honiara that Mr. Suidani [is] not in America, nor is the U.S. supportive of the visit.”
Suidani has become a standard bearer (one of many – though all increasingly embattled – including President David Panuelo of Micronesia and President Surangel Whipps of Palau) fighting the CCP takeover of their countries. That’s why what happens at Suidani’s upcoming visa interview is so important.
According to one former senior U.S. government official with knowledge of the area, and the issues, “Denial of visa for an opposition leader invites speculation about how and why. When some actions by U.S. officials are being interpreted as appeasement of [a] regime aligned with [the] PRC, this visa application should have been routinely approved. U.S. officials aware of the threat to rule of law and respect for civil and political rights in the Pacific should be conscientious about avoiding even the appearance of selective vigilance regarding freedom of routine travel.”
The outcome of the interview will be closely watched in Washington – and in Beijing.