A wild account of Chinese political interference is unfolding in Ottawa. No, not that one

A wild account of Chinese political interference unfolded this week in Ottawa. It's not what you're thinking. The leader of a deposed government from a remote tropical island came to share a cautionary story: his own. It illustrates how diverse locations are becoming theatres in an emerging cold war.

Deposed politician from tropical island visits Canada, warns of Beijing's activities in the South Pacific

Two leaders on red carpet
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is welcomed in China by then-premier Li Keqiang in 2019. Sogavare has since signed a security pact with China and delayed elections. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

One of the world's most riveting tales of Chinese political interference was unfolding last week in Ottawa. 

No, not the story of Canadian MPs and their families being targeted by Beijing. This one is different. 

Amid a tempestuous debate among Canadian parliamentarians over China's interference in Canadian domestic politics, it's unclear if many MPs noticed a visitor in their midst.

The leader of a deposed government from a remote tropical island came to share a cautionary tale: his own.

It's about how his provincial government collapsed after it began opposing the pro-Beijing policies of the national government, in the Solomon Islands.

It's an absorbing account involving allegations of bribery and counter-allegations, and political intrigue connected to one great geopolitical power struggle. 

Other capitals are becoming theatres in an emerging cold war between China and the U.S., from frosty Ottawa to the balmy island provinces of the Pacific.

Last week, the scenes collided. 

The former premier of the Solomon Islands' Malaita province and his senior adviser were in Ottawa amid the Canadian political scandal.

Daniel Suidani and his adviser Celsus Talifilu met with a few MPs from different parties: a Liberal, a Conservative, and a Bloquiste.

WATCH | Opposition MPs say David Johnston must go: 

Liberal MP John McKay said he'd never heard of the Solomon Islands saga, until he met Thursday with the visitors for a little over a half hour.

"I had no idea," McKay told CBC News. 

"But [this story is] really, in retrospect, no surprise at all."

In his view, Beijing's political power is growing, including through interference and intimidation. 

And that's happening in a vital maritime corridor, one that McKay said advanced democracies have too long taken for granted: the South Pacific.

The Suidani saga

In an interview, the newly unseated premier described repeated attempts to bribe him.

They began, Suidani said, when he started complaining about his country's historic rapprochement with Beijing in 2019.

The national government broke longstanding ties with Taiwan. It established official relations with the People's Republic of China. 

It signed a security pact with Beijing; according to a leaked version, the pact would allow China to place police, military personnel and other law enforcement on the island.

Now the national government has delayed planned elections until next year.

"[The prime minister] has become a dictator. Using vestiges of democracy that suit him," said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar of China and Pacific politics at New Zealand's University of Canterbury.

China is, meanwhile, expanding a deep-sea port and a hospital in the country; building a new sports stadium; and installing Huawei telecommunications towers, something Suidani opposed.

His opposition to China went far further.

As head of the largest province in the Solomon Islands, home to almost one-quarter of the country's 700,000 people, Suidani proposed halting new business licenses for investors linked to the Chinese Communist Party.

In an interview, he described his motivation as environmental: Suidani said his island's poor rural residents had seen little benefit from logging and he accused Chinese companies of dragging machinery through rivers and polluting their water.

"It's all destructive exploitation of resources," Suidani said during a recent visit to Washington, before he left for Ottawa. 

But there were also clear ideological reasons in a policy plan Suidani signed: it emphasized his island's deep Christian faith, and rejected what it called Beijing's atheistic ideology.

Discontent over the new China policy flared in destructive fashion, with some islanders violently opposed, rekindling old tensions in the country.

Deadly riots broke out and businesses were torched in the capital's Chinatown in 2021. Amid that political tension, Suidani was proposing an independence vote for his province.

By this point, he said, he'd been offered cash.

The first attempt to bribe him, he said, came during a visit to the capital, Honiara. He said he got a call in his hotel room, inviting him to meet in a nearby casino hotel.

Portrait of man
Daniel Suidani says the national government did not have public support to change the Solomon Islands' China policy, and he accuses Beijing of corrupting his country's politics. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

He said the anonymous caller, speaking local pijin, made a cryptic offer of 1 million Solomon Islands dollars (about $160,000 Cdn).

The caller, he said, warned that his political career would be over after four years, while the money could help his family forever.

"'After four years you're nobody,'" he recalled the caller saying.

"'Get the million and your family can be well off.'" 

Suidani said the caller refused to say more over the phone, and he didn't go to the meeting. This was in 2019. A more flagrant attempt occurred months later, he said.

He said a family acquaintance, someone married to his relative, invited him to supper with a very well-known politician, a former prime minister of the country.

They met at a Japanese restaurant at a hotel in Honiara.

"After five minutes, I see a representative from the Chinese embassy," Suidani said, recalling that the diplomat walked to their table, introduced himself, and moved on.

He said his dinner companions then urged him to create a fake invoice for services rendered, and collect payment from the Chinese embassy.

He said the nationally famous politician told him: "If you're scared to come to the embassy office, you can come to my house. … Come to my house with your invoice. We can just give you the money [there]."

Wreckage in front of a burned out storefront
Debris lies on the street outside damaged shops in Chinatown, in the Solomon Islands' capital, Honiara, in 2021. Discontent over a new, friendlier China policy was a driver of deadly rioting. (Piringi Charley/AP)

He said he refused. CBC News could not independently verify Suidani's account.

After that restaurant meeting, he said attempts to unseat his provincial government began. He survived a first confidence vote, then a second a year later, then this year he was toppled.

"He became target No. 1," said Cleo Paskal, a Montreal-based analyst and writer on the Indo-Pacific region with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank.

"It meant Suidani's government needed to either be brought under control. Or taken out, from Beijing's perspective."

He was even stripped of his seat in the provincial legislature — by the national government.

The Chinese embassy in the Solomon Islands did not respond to a request for comment. The Solomon Islands government denounced Suidani for what it called irresponsible and dangerous behaviour.

The national government accused Suidan of inflaming the country while trying to rewrite its foreign policy from a provincial capital.

It also blamed him for illegally planning a potential independence vote.

Two men shake hands in front of blue UN flag
Former Micronesian president David Panuelo, seen here in 2022 with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, accused Beijing of bribing and bullying his country's politicians. (Craig Ruttle/Reuters)

'Have you been bribed by the PRC?'

With an eye on regaining Taiwan, Beijing has been working to turn its rival's allies in the region into its own.

Both Beijing and Taiwan have been accused of (and both have denied) seeking to bribe decision-makers, including in Suidani's home province

Angered by these accusations, the Solomon Islands' government has threatened to throw journalists out of the country, following a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The report described a Chinese slush fund for political projects, with the money available only to MPs who supported the pro-China administration.

In the past, Taiwan used to fund this constituency program, available for members of parliament to use in their ridings.

Islanders have long complained about political cronyism in these funds; but Paskal said Beijing has taken it to a whole new level by reserving it for certain MPs, turning it into a means of control.

Elsewhere in the region, the story repeats itself.

Xi Jinping at a long table, surrounded by aides
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen during a 2019 meeting with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing. (Reuters)

In a letter this year to his country's politicians, the outgoing leader of Micronesia accused China of an illicit carrot-and-stick approach to politicians: bribing or bullying.

The departing president, David Panuelo, described cash-filled envelopes; gifts; offers of free plane rides; checks for projects that didn't appear in the public records; and threats.

In his departure, he proposed new money-laundering and transparency legislation, writing to his fellow politicians: "Have you personally received a bribe from the PRC? If the answer is 'no' — you are in the minority."

The geopolitical angle

All of which raises a question: Why would China care so much about sparsely populated islands in the South Pacific?

The answer, in a sense, used to sit on John F. Kennedy's desk. That's where he kept a wartime memento from the Solomon Islands: a coconut shell.

Great powers have coveted the location in the past. In the Second World War, the Solomon Islands is where the U.S. launched its land invasion against Japan.

A black and white photo of a young JFK sitting atop a boat
A young John F. Kennedy, seen aboard a PT-109 boat during the Second World War, before a near-fatal battle in the Solomon Islands. (Reuters)

The reason the U.S. chose this site, the Solomon Islands' Guadalcanal: preserving vital American links with Australia.

The surrounding chain of islands separates the U.S. from its regional ally. The Solomon Islands, like Papua New Guinea, and Micronesia, sit between Australia and American-held Guam and Hawaii.

Kennedy nearly died there as a young naval lieutenant: on his White House desk, he kept the coconut shell he used to send an SOS message.

"The politics change [through the years] – but the geography doesn't," Brady said.

In testimony last month before the U.S. House of Representatives, Paskal referred to these islands as a corridor of freedom.

She called it disturbing that the U.S. Coast Guard has, during recent fishing patrols, been blocked from docking to refuel at ports in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

Soldiers walk in jungle
U.S. soldiers walk during annual joint combat exercises in Indonesia in 2022. Other countries joined the annual U.S.-Indonesia exercise, as Washington looks to bolster its alliances in Oceania and Asia. (AP)

"China wants to push the U.S. out of the Pacific. And push it back to Hawaii," Paskal said in an interview. 

Chinese media have called concerns about its presence in the South Pacific fear-mongering and hypocritical, given that the U.S. has numerous military sites around the world, while China has just one, in Africa.

Amid the surge in Chinese activity, the U.S. is renewing its interest in the region. It just reopened a long-shuttered embassy in the Solomon Islands.

The U.S. has also increased aid funding to the country, including a $25-million agriculture and farming program in Suidani's province. 

High level White House officials have made repeat visits – both to the country and region

Happy crowd of children
While U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Pacific island leaders at the White House last year, he cancelled a planned visit to the recent summit in Papua New Guinea. People are seen gathering here in Port Moseby outside a meeting between the U.S. secretary of state and New Zealand's prime minister. (Nick Perry/AP)

Just days ago, U.S. President Joe Biden was supposed to be at a regional summit in nearby Papua New Guinea.

In what the Associated Press called a foreign policy setback, Biden wound up canceling that visit. The reason: Biden had to be in Washington to deal with a domestic political crisis – the threat of a U.S. debt default, since defused.

Brady argues that democracies have been asleep while China installs equipment in the region that could have military applications, from maritime to satellite infrastructure.

"Our countries move too slow," she said, lamenting that the U.S. still barely has any diplomats in the Solomon Islands.

In the meantime, Solomon Islands politicians are coming to North America for meetings in Washington, Ottawa, and elsewhere.

"We are lucky that they're coming here – to remind us how essential and precious and vulnerable democracy can be," Paskal said.

"You can see that playing out in real time in the Solomon Islands. Which went from not a perfect, but a functioning, democracy in 2019 when it [still] recognized Taiwan, to a fear-based, election-depriving, proto-authoritarian regime four years later. 

"It can happen very, very fast."


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.