US sends officials to Solomon Islands over tensions over security pact with China

The top Asia White House official is preparing to travel to the Solomon Islands for a rare high-level visit that underscores concerns in Washington over the Pacific nation’s security pact with China.

According to four people familiar with the plan, Kurt Campbell will fly to the Solomon Islands this month. He is expected to travel with Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s top Asia official. Your visit comes as the small Pacific nation evolves into a strategic battleground between the US and China.

The US has grown concerned about the Solomon Islands since switching diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 2019. Those concerns have grown after a draft security pact was leaked that would give China a base in a part of the Pacific closer to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii than to Beijing.

That draft contract – which has not yet been signed – paves the way for China to station troops and police on the islands. It also said Chinese security personnel would guard all of the country’s ships docking in the Solomon Islands.

“It is a fairly broad agreement that appears to leave the door wide open for future deployment of PRC security and military forces in the Solomon Islands,” said a senior State Department official.

“We have concerns about what this could mean for the security interests of our friends in the Pacific Islands.

“We would be concerned if PRC security forces – or perhaps even military forces – were introduced to the region in a non-transparent, non-cooperative, non-cooperative manner. . . That will very likely increase the tension.”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has denied that the pact would allow China to build a base. But to underscore the concern of the US and its allies, Australian intelligence chief Andrew Shearer and foreign intelligence chief Paul Symon visited the capital Honiara this week.

During World War II, the Solomon Islands was the scene of the “Battle of Guadalcanal” which took place between 1942 and 1943 and was instrumental in turning the tide of the war against Japan, which wanted to set up an air force base on the main island. In January, Campbell told CSIS, a think tank, that the Pacific was the most likely area for a “strategic surprise” like a Chinese base.

Charles Edel, an Australia expert at CSIS, said the pact is worrying because China has been shown to have denied doing things — like vowing not to militarize South China Sea Islands – before proceeding.

“Chinese bases . . . would help create spheres of influence that shape the politics of the region, threaten our allies and, in a conflict, have the potential to both delay and disrupt the flow of U.S. forces into the region,” Edel said. “As the Chinese military projects its power further into the Pacific, it will give it more opportunities to observe, pursue and attack US forces.”

Campbell also warned in January that the US and its allies had “very little time.” . . to improve our game across the board.” His visit is intended to renew commitment and comes as the US plans to open an embassy in the country for the first time since 1993.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former President John F Kennedy who has been nominated to serve as US ambassador to Australia, said this week it was important for Washington to become “more visible” in the region.

One person said Campbell is creating an initiative called Partners of Pacific to help Pacific island nations counter coercive measures from China.

Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman, said the pact is a “big deal” that underscored how Washington hasn’t been paying enough attention to the islands from Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu. He said the US needs to build more creative partnerships in the region, particularly to prepare for the possibility of a conflict with China over Taiwan.

“Some may think the Solomon Islands are small, but . . . this is a big indicator that we have been neglecting this region for too long.”

Catherine Ebert-Gray, who managed relations with the Solomon Islands as US ambassador to Papua New Guinea until late 2019, said locals argued they had been begging the US for more engagement for years, but Washington was juggling many priorities and Australia was doing good job managing relations with Honiara. But she said US focus had begun to return in recent years, even before diplomatic recognition shifted from Taipei to Beijing.

“When I took up my role as ambassador to the region, there was no interest in Washington in opening a new embassy, ​​but we continued to advocate and China’s influence continued to grow. . . There was a quick reversal,” said Ebert-Gray, now director of education at the University of Colorado.

She also noted the Peace Corps’ decision to launch a program in the Solomon Islands after two decades. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Fiji, where the US is also vying for influence with China, and pledged more regional climate change and Covid-19 assistance to the region.

The State Department official said the US has donated more than 52,000 doses of Covid vaccine to the Solomon Islands this week, after donating 100,000 doses late last year. He said the US is also helping to clean up unexploded World War II weapons while the US Coast Guard is cracking down on illegal fishing.

Ami Bera, the Democratic chairman of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on Asia, said the US must ensure that China cannot use security pacts in the region to employ “salami-cutting” tactics in the South China Sea to avoid a Gradually militarize number of reefs and islands.

“Give them an inch, they will take a foot. Give them a foot, they’ll take a meter. . . You have to stop them at the first stage,” said Bera, who co-introduced the Blue Pacific Act to increase diplomatic and development funds to counter China. “It is much easier to prevent war than to engage in direct confrontation.”

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Adam Bradshaw

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