China’s security deal with Solomons raises alarm in Pacific

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The Chinese national flag flies outside the Chinese Embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Charley Piringi)
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A display case of photos is seen outside the Chinese Embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on April 2, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Updated 07 April 2022

China’s security deal with Solomons raises alarm in Pacific

  • A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would put it on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand
  • It will also be in close proximity to Guam, with its massive US military bases

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: A security alliance between China and the Solomon Islands has sent shudders throughout the South Pacific, with many worried it could set off a large-scale military buildup or that Western animosity to the deal could play into China’s hands.
What remains most unclear is the extent of China’s ambitions.
A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand but also in close proximity to Guam, with its massive US military bases.
China so far operates just one acknowledged foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. Many believe that China’s People’s Liberation Army is busy establishing an overseas military network, even if they don’t use the term “base.”
The Solomon Islands government says a draft of its agreement with China was initialed last week and will be “cleaned up” and signed soon.
The draft, which was leaked online, says that Chinese warships could stop in the Solomons for “logistical replenishment” and that China could send police, military personnel and other armed forces to the Solomons “to assist in maintaining social order.”
The draft agreement specifies China must approve what information is disclosed about joint security arrangements, including at media briefings.
The Solomon Islands, home to about 700,000 people, switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 — a move rejected by the most populous province and a contributing factor to riots last November.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded in February by saying that Washington would reopen its embassy in the capital, Honiara, which has been closed since 1993, to increase its influence in the Solomons before China becomes “strongly embedded.”
Both China and the Solomons have strongly denied the new pact will lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base. The Solomon Islands government said the pact is necessary because of its limited ability to deal with violent uprisings like the one in November.
“The country has been ruined by recurring internal violence for years,” the government said this week.
But Australia, New Zealand and the US have all expressed alarm about the deal, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing it as “gravely concerning.”
David Panuelo, the president of nearby Micronesia, which has close ties to the US, wrote an impassioned letter to Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare asking him to rethink the agreement.
He noted that both Micronesia and the Solomon Islands were battlegrounds during World War II, caught up in the clash of great powers.
“I am confident that neither of us wishes to see a conflict of that scope or scale ever again, and most particularly in our own backyards,” Panuelo wrote.
But the Solomon Islands police minister mocked Panuelo’s concerns on social media, saying he should be more worried about his own atoll being swallowed by the ocean due to climate change.
Sogavare has likewise dismissed foreign criticism of the security agreement as insulting, while labeling those who leaked the draft as “lunatics.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the agreement aims to maintain the safety of people’s lives and property, and “does not have any military overtones,” saying media speculation on the potential development of a base was groundless.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Singapore, said China has been pursuing such a port facility for some five years as it aims to expand its naval presence in the South Pacific as part of Beijing’s long-game of seeking to become the dominant regional power.
“If they want to break out into the Pacific, at some point they will need the logistics capability to support that presence,” Graham said. “We’re not talking about war plans here; this is really about extending their presence and influence.”
Unlike the base built in Djibouti, where China has commercial interests in the region to protect, Graham said any operation in the Solomon Islands would likely be less substantial.
“It’s quite a subtle and interesting geopolitical game that’s emerged in the South Pacific,” he added. “And I think the Chinese have been very successful, if you like, in outflanking the United States and Australia in an influence competition, not a military competition.”
China’s base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. China doesn’t call it a base, but rather a support facility for its naval operations fending off piracy in the Gulf of Aden and for its African peacekeeping operations. It boasts a 400-meter (1,300-foot) runway and a pier big enough to dock either of China’s two operating aircraft carriers.
The base, with 2,000 personnel, allows China to position supplies, troops and equipment in a strategically crucial region, while also keeping an eye on US forces that are stationed nearby.
Chief among other potential base candidates is Cambodia, whose authoritarian leader Hun Sen has long been a trusted Chinese ally and which reportedly signed a secret 2019 agreement permitting the establishment of a Chinese base.
China is dredging the harbor at Ream Naval Base to allow ships larger than any Cambodia possesses to dock, and is building new infrastructure to replace a US-built naval tactical headquarters. A Chinese base in Cambodia would establish a chokepoint in the Gulf of Thailand close to the crucial Malacca Strait.
China has also funded projects at Gwadar in Pakistan, another close ally, and in Sri Lanka, where Chinese infrastructure lending has forced the government to hand over control of the southern port of Hambantota.
Especially intriguing has been an alleged Chinese push to establish a base in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. That would give China a presence on the Atlantic opposite the east coast of the continental United States as well as in an important African oil-producing region.
“China has seized opportunities to expand its influence at a time when the US and other countries have not been as engaged economically in the Pacific islands,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
About 80 years ago in the Solomon Islands, the US military began its famous “island hopping” campaign of World War II to take back Pacific islands from Imperial Japanese forces one-by-one. It successfully won back the main island of Guadalcanal in February 1943 after some six months of fierce fighting.
Today, the Solomon Islands would give China the potential ability to interfere with US naval operations in the region that could be crucial in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or in the South and East China seas.
Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton, Australia’s chief of joint operations, said that if Chinese naval ships were able to operate from the Solomon Islands it would “change the calculus.”
“They’re in much closer proximity to the Australian mainland, obviously, and that would change the way that we would undertake day-to-day operations, particularly in the air and at sea,” he told reporters.
But Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said he thinks that leaders have overreacted to the agreement, perhaps in Australia’s case because there is an election looming.
“It’s clearly getting everyone very animated in the West and very alarmed,” Pryke said. “But I don’t think it markedly changes things on the ground.”
He said the pact could be seen as the first step toward China establishing a base, but there would need to be many more steps taken before that could happen.
“I think the alarmism has strengthened China’s hand by pushing the Solomon Islands into a corner,” Pryke said. “And they’ve reacted the way I imagine many countries would react from getting this outside pressure — by pushing back, and digging their heels in.”

German police raid premises across the country in connection with migrant smuggling

Updated 9 sec ago

German police raid premises across the country in connection with migrant smuggling

  • Inside the searched apartments and other buildings, police discovered many migrants without residence permits
BERLIN: More than 350 German federal police searched premises across the country early Tuesday in connection with the smuggling of migrants early on Tuesday.
The focus of the raids was on cities and towns in northern and western Germany but also in Bavaria in the south, German news agency DPA reported.
Police executed five arrest warrants, three in the northern town of Stade and two in the western town of Gladbeck. Inside the searched apartments and other buildings, police discovered many migrants without residence permits, dpa reported.
The raids were ordered by federal police at Frankfurt airport on suspicion of gang and commercial smuggling of foreigners, German news agency DPA reported.

India’s BJP, the world’s biggest party, plots election drive of epic scale

Updated 1 min 18 sec ago

India’s BJP, the world’s biggest party, plots election drive of epic scale

  • BJP launches what it calls biggest voter outreach in history
  • Party sends out 18,000 activists to meet 35 million voters

KOLKATA: Indian activist Partha Chaudhury is on a war footing as he strides out of the ruling BJP’s regional headquarters in Kolkata armed with passion and pages of voter lists.

“We need to meet each and every BJP supporter, and all of this has to be done in less than 300 days,” the 39-year-old tells a group of fellow activists advancing into the north of Kolkata, the teeming riverfront capital of West Bengal that’s home to about 15 million people.

“We want people to remember that the BJP knocked on their doors much before any opposition party worker did.”

Chaudhury and his team are among an army of 18,000 volunteer activists fanning out across India ahead of next year’s national election. Their mission is to meet — face-to-face — with about 35 million BJP supporters by January, or roughly 2,000 each.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the world’s largest political outfit with 180 million members, is betting on what it says is the biggest voter outreach campaign in history, to secure a third term in power in the world’s most populous country.

Its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, remains enduringly popular among Indians after almost a decade having brought political stability, invested in infrastructure, and championed welfare reforms and national security.

Despite voter concerns about inflation, unemployment and uneven growth, opinion polls suggest the right-wing BJP will comfortably win a third term in the federal elections, expected to be held in April and May.

It’s no sure thing, though: growing anti-incumbency sentiment is conspiring with a newly formed national alliance of 26 opposition parties, including archrival Congress, to pose what BJP officials say will be Modi’s toughest test by far.

“For once we are now seeing a united opposition,” said Tamoghna Ghosh, a senior BJP official campaigning in Kolkata. “They may be devoid of a shared political ideology or vision, but their determination to defeat Modi can’t be overlooked.”

While Modi and his party stress they govern for all Indians, their emphasis of their Hindu faith and culture has disquieted some members of minority groups who feel politically excluded, especially Muslims who make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 billion population.

Some critics warn of an erosion of India’s status as a secular democracy, long enshrined in its constitution.

BJP leaders in New Delhi have been spurred to action by an internal report presented to them by researchers in February that concluded that an anti-incumbency vote could see the party lose about 34 of their 303 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, robbing it of the majority that gives it a freer hand to pass laws, three senior party officials told Reuters.

“This time we will have to win in uncharted territories as retaining all the existing seats for the third time in a row is going to be a challenge,” said BJP national president J.P. Nadda, who is leading the grassroots mobilization drive.

In conversations with Reuters, Nadda and six other senior BJP figures outlined previously unreported details of the project — dubbed the “Big Outreach” internally — which they said marked a shift from its 2014 and 2019 election strategies focused more on large campaign rallies across the country.

It won’t be an easy task, or free of risk, according to Nalin Mehta, dean at the UPES School of Modern Media in Uttarakhand and author of the book “The New BJP.” He said the ground mobilization, accompanied by an online campaign blitz, could fuel anti-incumbency sentiment in some quarters.

“The BJP’s challenge as the dominant national party is to manage voter fatigue and to sustain the enthusiasm among its cadres after two terms in power,” Mehta added.

“The party’s ground-level cadre-building goes hand in hand with the creation of a massive digital footprint ... as well as an industrial scale use of social media.”


The BJP’s outreach began over the summer, much earlier than in its previous campaigns when mobilization started about four months before national elections.

The campaign isn’t focusing on wooing voters from rival parties, according to the party officials, but will instead make direct contact with people who voted BJP in 2019 to lock down their support, enlist their campaigning assistance and provide intelligence on local issues.

The first phase, slated to end in early October, targets 134 priority constituencies with Hindu-majority populations where they lost by narrow margins in 2014 and 2019.

“These seats require energetic intervention and insulation of existing vote share,” said Nadda, adding that the second phase ending in January would see activists visit all of the 303 seats that the party won four years ago.

“This time, the world’s biggest party has launched the biggest-ever outreach to win the world’s biggest elections.”

Mahua Moitra, a national lawmaker with the regional opposition All India Trinamool Congress, isn’t impressed. She said the bolstered outreach efforts reflected the threats posed to the BJP by the “INDIA” alliance of 26 rivals formed in July to challenge the ruling party’s nationalist platform and oust Modi.

“The BJP is in panic mode and it’s forcing them to set up a taskforce to meet voters a year before elections,” she added. “They won’t be third-time lucky.”

Moitra is MP for Krishnanagar in West Bengal, a state in India’s far east where Muslims make up about a quarter of the population. The BJP is resented by many voters there who fear its brand of Hindu nationalism has marginalized minorities and hindered their economic progress.

Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the rival Congress party, said the coalition of 26 regional parties might not have the financial clout enjoyed by the ruling to launch a similar grassroots campaign, but the alliance had mustered a broad enough opposition base to oust Modi.

“The BJP’s grassroot workers can gather intelligence or coax voters but they will not win the 2024 election,” he said, adding that too much “in-your-face” campaigning could turn off voters.


Not so, says BJP leader Nadda who says politicians must keep their ear to the ground.

Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is a city with deep historical, strategic and political significance. Long a trading hub for commodities like jute and tea, it was once the seat of British power in India as well as the cradle of an intellectual and artistic renaissance born in the 18th century.

Kolkata North, where and his group are campaigning, is a prime example of an early priority seat being targeted by the ruling party, as well as the problems the BJP faces nationally.

The BJP was beaten by a regional opposition party four years ago, even though it had strong support there, winning roughly 600,000 of the total 1.5 million votes cast.

Nonetheless Partha Chaudhury, an ophthalmologist by profession, has a clear vision as he traverses streets dotted with the 300-year-old crumbling architectural legacy of a bygone colonial era.

His first stop is a tin-shed shop in a slum district skirted by Victorian-era houses that have seen better days, where introduces himself to a bare-chested shopkeeper tending a cauldron of oil and kneading dough to fry samosas.

“Please tell us, elder brother, what can we do to make your life better?” Chaudhury asked the shopkeeper and simultaneously ticks off the man’s name in his voter list.

He speaks fervently about a slew of reforms introduced by the federal government to improve lives of the urban poor since Modi came to power in 2014.

Chaudhury intones a mantra he’ll repeat to more than 20 voters in the next three hours: “We know you vote for the BJP and we are here to understand what we should be doing to win this seat in 2024.”

Anti-Muslim hate speech in India concentrated around elections – report

Updated 26 September 2023

Anti-Muslim hate speech in India concentrated around elections – report

  • Anti-Muslim hate speech incidents in India averaged more than one a day in the first half of 2023
  • About 70 percent of the incidents took place in states scheduled to hold elections in 2023 and 2024

WASHINGTON: Anti-Muslim hate speech incidents in India averaged more than one a day in the first half of 2023 and were seen most in states with upcoming elections, according to a report by Hindutva Watch, a Washington-based group monitoring attacks on minorities.
There were 255 documented incidents of hate speech gatherings targeting Muslims in the first half of 2023, the report found. There was no comparative data for prior years.
It used the United Nations’ definition of hate speech as “any form of communication... that employs prejudiced or discriminatory language toward an individual or group based on attributes such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factors.”
About 70 percent of the incidents took place in states scheduled to hold elections in 2023 and 2024, according to the report.
Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat witnessed the highest number of hate speech gatherings, with Maharashtra accounting for 29 percent of such incidents, the report found. The majority of the hate speech events mentioned conspiracy theories and calls for violence and socio-economic boycotts against Muslims.
About 80 percent of those events took place in areas governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to win the general elections in 2024.
Hindutva Watch said it tracked online activity of Hindu nationalist groups, verified videos of hate speeches posted on social media and compiled data of isolated incidents reported by media.
Modi’s government denies the presence of minority abuse. The Indian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Rights groups allege mistreatment of Muslims under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014.
They point to a 2019 citizenship law described as “fundamentally discriminatory” by the United Nations human rights office for excluding Muslim migrants; an anti-conversion legislation challenging the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief, and the 2019 revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status.
There has also been demolition of Muslim properties in the name of removing illegal construction and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.

Hundreds of Sikh Canadians protest against India

Updated 26 September 2023

Hundreds of Sikh Canadians protest against India

  • Canada has said New Delhi was possibly involved in June assassination of Sikh separatist leader near Vancouver
  • Several hundred people gathered in Toronto but also in Ottawa and Vancouver to denounce PM Modi’s government

TORONTO, Canada: Hundreds of Sikh protesters rallied outside Indian diplomatic missions in Canada on Monday, trampling pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and burning flags a week after Ottawa said New Delhi had played a role in the killing of a prominent Sikh activist.
“We are not safe back home in Punjab, we are not safe in Canada,” said Joe Hotha, a member of the Sikh community in Toronto, referring to the murder in June of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar near Vancouver.
Last Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told parliament that New Delhi was possibly involved in the assassination of the Sikh leader, triggering a major diplomatic crisis between the two nations.
“Now our prime minister tells everything in the parliament, so there is no excuse,” said another Sikh protester, Harpar Gosal of Toronto.
Like other protesters, he carried the yellow flag of Khalistan — an independent state that some Sikhs hope to create in the Indian region of Punjab.
Several hundred people gathered in Toronto but also in Ottawa and Vancouver to denounce Modi’s government.
Canada is home to the largest Sikh community in the world outside of India, with 770,000 Canadians professing Sikhism in 2021, or two percent of the country’s population.
The Indian government called the Canadian accusations “absurd” and vehemently denied them.
It also advised its nationals not to travel to certain Canadian regions “given the increase in anti-Indian activities” and temporarily stopped processing visa applications in Canada.
Since then, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been at their lowest point, marked by reciprocal expulsions of diplomats while Trudeau has repeatedly called on the Indian authorities to cooperate in the investigation.

Biden, US officials warn of hunger for millions in a government shutdown

Visitors tour the Capitol grounds in Washington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. (AP)
Updated 26 September 2023

Biden, US officials warn of hunger for millions in a government shutdown

  • More than 40 million Americans relied on SNAP to make ends meet in 2022; inflation has put new pressure on household budgets, with prices higher since the COVID-19 pandemic for goods from bread to fresh vegetables and baby formula

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and one of his top aides warned on Monday that a federal government shutdown could cause widespread suffering, including a rapid loss of food benefits for nearly 7 million low-income women and children.
Biden told a meeting on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that failure by Congress to fund the federal government would have dire consequences for the Black community, including by reducing nutritional benefits, inspections of hazardous waste sites and enforcement of fair housing laws.
He said he and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had agreed a few months ago on spending levels for the government.
“We made a deal, we shook hands,” he said. “Now a small group of extreme House Republicans .. don’t want to live up to that deal, and everyone in America could be faced with paying the price for it.”
Asked if he had spoken with McCarthy, Biden said, “I haven’t.” He shook his head when asked when they would speak.
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters earlier that the “vast majority” of the 7 million participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program would see an immediate reduction in benefits in the days and weeks after a shutdown starts.
Nearly half of US newborns rely on WIC, the USDA says.
A separate benefits program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will continue as normal for the month of October but could be affected afterward, he said.
More than 40 million Americans relied on SNAP to make ends meet in 2022; inflation has put new pressure on household budgets, with prices higher since the COVID-19 pandemic for goods from bread to fresh vegetables and baby formula.
During a shutdown, farm service agencies will also stop making loans to farmers during harvest time, and new homebuyers will not be able to get loans in rural areas, Vilsack said. More than 50,000 Department of Agriculture workers will be furloughed, meaning they will not receive a paycheck.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives may move to advance steep spending cuts this week that would almost certainly be rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate. While the cuts would not become law, a failure by both chambers to agree could force a partial shutdown of the US government by next Sunday.
House lawmakers on Tuesday were set to take up four spending bills for the coming fiscal year that would also impose new restrictions on abortion access, undo an $11 billion Biden administration climate initiative, and resume construction of the Mexico-US border wall, a signature initiative of former President Donald Trump. Biden has vowed to veto at least two of the bills.
Vilsack called Republican fiscal plans “punitive” and “petty.”