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Two critics of China’s growing influence in the South Pacific came to Ottawa this month to plead for Canada and the West to invest money in their homeland, the Solomon Islands, as a counterbalance to Beijing.

“Where is the West?” asks Daniel Suidani, who was ousted as premier of the Solomon Islands’ most populous province earlier this year. He has long criticized his country’s intensifying relationship with China and had barred Chinese investment in his province of Malaita. Mr. Suidani was removed in a non-confidence vote that he and his supporters had boycotted.

“We share the same values and principles,” he said in an interview. “There is a need for the countries of the West to invest in the countries of the Pacific,” as Chinese businesses and the Chinese government have been doing, he said.

Mr. Suidani and his adviser, Celsus Talifilu, fear arrest if they return to the Solomon Islands, an archipelago of more than 707,000 people less than 2,000 kilometres northeast of Australia.

The strategically important Pacific country – the site of gruelling battles in the Second World War – was among the few remaining diplomatic allies of Taiwan but switched diplomatic recognition to China in 2019 under current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Canada pledged more investment and engagement with the Indo-Pacific region in a November, 2022, strategy. This included Canada’s first international assistance program for the Pacific islands region, which includes the Solomons.

Mr. Suidani and Mr. Talifilu met with John McKay, the Liberal MP who chairs the Commons committee on national defence, as well as members of the Conservative caucus and the Bloc Québécois. They sought a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly but she was away from Ottawa attending a NATO meeting in Oslo.

Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist on China and the Pacific at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, said China is amassing an inventory of strategic infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific. It’s attempting to co-opt the political elites in small countries throughout the region, she said, and trying to gain access to friendly ports and airfields using a strategy called “civil-military fusion,” where Beijing’s defence apparatus gains from investments or agreements made by Chinese companies.

Beijing’s goal is to alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and cut off the countries in the region from the U.S. and its allies, she said.

Prof. Brady said she fears Mr. Suidani and Mr. Talifilu will be arrested or, even “worse than that,” face a threat to their lives if they return home.

And she says she is concerned that Mr. Sogavare is “on the verge of morphing into a Mugabe-type” figure, a reference to the African dictator who dominated Zimbabwe politics for four decades.

Prof. Brady warns that if a hostile power controls a base in the Solomons, they could block shipping traffic from the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, into the Coral Sea off Australia, and even beyond that.

In April, 2022, China announced that it had signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, raising fears among the United States and its allies that this was a prelude to increasing a Chinese military foothold in the region.

Mr. Sogavare has reportedly said he would never allow a Chinese military base in his country and Beijing has played down the matter, saying its growing co-operation with South Pacific island countries will not threaten Australia.

A draft copy of a China-Solomon Islands security MOU circulating on social media last year stated it would cover Chinese police, armed police and the military assisting the Solomon Islands on social order, disaster response and protecting the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.

The draft also provided for Chinese naval ships to carry out logistical replenishments in the Solomon Islands, fuelling anxiety in Canberra that it would be a step toward a Chinese military base in the region.

Mr. McKay, the Liberal chair of the Commons defence committee, said he fears China is trying to “corrupt the existing political structure” in Pacific island countries.

“You don’t need to be a political or military genius to figure out what is going on here. It is a playbook that has been successfully executed in Sri Lanka and a number of African countries,” he said. He was referring to China’s influence in Sri Lanka where Beijing has also become one of its largest creditors.

Last summer, China lent the Solomon Islands government $85-million to build 161 mobile communication towers to be supplied and constructed by Huawei. The Canadian government has barred Huawei gear from 5G wireless networks in Canada over security risks.

Sponsors of the Solomon Islanders’ trip to Canada include Canadian book publisher Dean Baxendale, who is also chief executive officer of the China Democracy Fund, which helps support scholars, journalists and others who work on democracy and human-rights issues related to China. The fund is raising money for the two men.

The Globe and Mail reached out to a diplomatic mission in Vancouver representing the Solomon Islands in Canada but did not receive an immediate response.

With reports from Reuters

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