You may have never heard of the Solomon Islands, but foreign policy and defense experts certainly have. The nation was the site of the decisive battle Guadalcanal in World War II, when the United States began to roll back Japanese conquests. The archipelago was important at the time because Japanese forces stationed there could threaten Allied positions in the southwestern Pacific and New Guinea, disrupting Australia’s supply routes from the United States. It’s just 1,100 miles from Australian air and naval bases in Cairns, Queensland, meaning Chinese forces based on the islands could threaten our allies as well as the seaways to the north and east, potentially disrupting U.S. efforts to come to Taiwan’s aid if China invaded.
This is only the latest development in China’s long-standing attempts to gain influence in small, strategically located Pacific island nations. Australian Lowy Institute reports that Beijing has spent about $ 170 million in aid to Pacific nations such as Kiribati, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. This has given China very good will and tangible benefits such as Kiribati’s decision to open its waters to Chinese fishermen – a move Western analysts say will allow China to invade the area militarily.
Vanuatu, another island nation, denies that it will allow China to establish a naval base there, but a Chinese-funded port expansion project could allow for a civilian facility that could be quickly converted to military use in the future. China’s close ties with Fiji even spurred Foreign Minister Antony Blinken on visit the little nation in February to withdraw it to the western camp.
Reversing these Chinese gains is important to America’s strategy in the Pacific. Chinese bases in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji would effectively control access to northeastern Australia, forcing that nation to deploy its military assets to combat this threat instead of contributing to broader allied operations elsewhere in the Pacific. Kiribati is all about 1,350 miles south of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Base at Pearl Harbor. Even a marginal Chinese military presence in Kiribati would force U.S. military planners to devote scarce resources to defending themselves against any threat, further weakening our ability to protect Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan in the event of war.
The Biden administration is well aware of these challenges, but it could use bipartisan congressional support for its Pacific initiatives. It’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to compete with China, and Republicans should be fully involved in funding this project. It is much cheaper to keep a nation out of China’s orbit than it is to build the military forces to bypass it.
Both parties will have to overlook the fact that some of this money will go to potentially tasteless regimes. Tongais, for example, a constitutional monarchy in which the king remains politically powerful and nobles occupy nine of the 26 seats of the Legislative Assembly. Fiji has had two coups and one constitutional crisis since 2000. Six of these crucial nations are still criminalize same-sex relationships. None of this is beautiful, but China will certainly overlook a country’s commitment to democracy or modern conceptions of human rights. Letting our preferences get in the way of our interests is a sure way to lose global influence and increase the risk to national security.
Like it or not, the unipolar world that the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in is over. Our opponents can fight back, and they are increasingly using all the means at their disposal to push back against American influence. Losses in many places like the Solomon Islands, and the threat from China will start to get uncomfortably close to home. Better to use big and push outwards now instead of being put in a corner later.