A U.S. delegation led by top officials in the White House and the State Department of Asia is heading to the Solomon Islands this week, an archipelago in the South Pacific with fewer than 700,000 inhabitants that has unexpectedly become the zero point of US-China competition.
Why it’s important: A planned security deal negotiated with Beijing, which could allow China’s navy to lay warships to the islands, sent the United States and its allies in Australia and New Zealand into diplomatic hyperdrive.
- U.S. officials on their way to the islands will argue that the United States, not China, “can bring security, prosperity and peace to the region,” an administration official told Axios.
Driver news: According to a draft agreement that began circulating online last month, Solomon Islands was able to ask Chinese security forces to restore “social order.” Once on the islands, they would also have the authority to “protect the security of Chinese personnel and major projects.”
- The rumor of an agreement came just weeks after Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced in February that the United States would open an embassy in Honiara, the capital, to increase engagement with the islands, where there has been a fierce internal debate over relations with China.
- Senior U.S. officials have called for Honiara, and the State Department and the Pentagon have issued warnings about the “export” of China’s security forces and the “precedent set” for the region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a senior diplomat to the islands, describing the pending agreement as a “major concern”, with New Zealand reiterating this sentiment.
- Between the lines: The deal could both see Chinese naval vessels dock about 1,250 miles northeast of Australia and signal that Canberra’s traditional influence in the South Pacific is waning.
But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare rejected the “very insulting” proposals that his country was “unfit to govern our sovereign affairs.”
- He has said that the Solomon Islands will not allow China to build a military base, but is “diversify“its security partnerships.
- He recently told parliament he was ready to sign the agreement, according to the WSJ.
- U.S. officials, led by Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell in the White House and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, will try to change their minds. Accompanied by USAID, they will “talk about a number of ways to offer assistance in the region,” the administration official said.
Looking back: Matt Pottinger, the top Asia expert on former President Trump’s National Security Council, visited Solomon Islands in March 2019 amid concerns that the small nation – one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners at the time – might shift allegiance to China.
- Despite a diplomatic push from Washington, the islands cut ribbons with Taiwan in September 2019.
- The United States must be “very, very active” in the Pacific Islands, Pottinger told Axios on Monday. “US and Australian policy towards the Pacific cannot fly on autopilot when competition is as far advanced as it is when China is so focused on military base and influence and intelligence gathering in this region.”
- Pottinger said if China establishes bases across the Pacific, it could threaten U.S. supply lines in the event of war.
Marine Corps Commander Gen. David Berger noticed this week on a trip to Australia that the geographical location of the Solomon Islands was important during World War II – when a decisive battle was fought on Guadalcanal, the archipelago’s largest island – and it continues to be so today.
- He also warned that the security pact was “too good to be true” for the islands and would come with strict ties.
- Spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said last month that countries that have long sent “military planes and vessels straight to the doorsteps of others” should not “condescendingly” protest against such “mutually beneficial cooperation.”
Bag history: Relations with China are disputed on the islands themselves.
- The provincial government of the most populous island, Malaita, defied Sogavare in 2019 by maintaining ties with Taiwan. The United States controversially promised Malaita $ 35 million in direct US aid by 2020.
- When protesters from Malaita tried to storm parliament last November, Sogavare blamed “deliberate lies” about the diplomatic shift from China to Taiwan and interference from “external powers”.
What to see: The “vague” language in the draft agreement could play to Beijing’s advantage, according to Charles Edel, Australian chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
- “The Chinese government has a track record of denying its true intentions while taking steps to militarize its forward-looking presence and interfere in the domestic policies of foreign nations,” he said.