The United States will open an embassy in the Solomon Islands, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday as he committed more diplomatic and security resources into the Pacific as a counter to China’s drive for greater influence.
Blinken, in Fiji for virtual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) of regional leaders, heard their concerns about the need for genuine action on climate change and complaints that they had long been overlooked by bigger nations.
“Fiji and all the Pacific Island nations are a vital part of the Indo-Pacific region,” Blinken told a news conference with Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
Sayed-Khaiyu noted that Fiji and the other Pacific nations were the guardians of the largest ocean continent in the world, which was crucial to the wellbeing of everyone in the world.
“Despite that, Fiji and our small-state neighbours have felt at times, to borrow an American term, like a flyover country,” he said.
“Small dots spotted from planes of leaders en route to meetings where they spoke about us rather than with us, if they spoke about us at all,” he said, adding he hoped the visit marked the start of a more direct relationship between the United States and the Pacific.
Blinken flew to Fiji after a meeting in Melbourne of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, at which the so-called Quad pledged to deepen cooperation to ensure an Indo-Pacific region free from “coercion,” a thinly veiled swipe at China’s economic and military expansion.
“This is not at all a case of us being here, coming here, being focussed here for security reasons. It’s much more fundamental than that,” Blinken said. “When we’re looking at this region that we share, we see it as the region for the future.”
In a briefing on the flight to Fiji, a senior U.S administration official told travelling reporters that “there are very clear indications that (China) want to create military relationships in the Pacific”.
“The most pressing case right now is what’s going on in the Solomon Islands. With Chinese security personnel bucking up an increasingly besieged president in a way that has caused a lot of anxieties across the region,” the official said.
“Solomon Islands welcomes U.S decision to re-establish its Embassy in Honiara. My Government stands ready to work with your diplomats on the ground to make this happen,” Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele said in statement during joint meeting with U.S Secretary of State.
The Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan in 2019.
Violent protests erupted in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara in November after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita province, which had opposed the diplomatic switch to Beijing.
Around 200 police and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea arrived in Honiara within days of the riots, at Sogavare’s request.
Sogavare accused the provincial government in Malaita, the most populous province in the country, of being “Taiwan’s agent”, and in December survived a no-confidence motion in parliament.
China later sent police advisers to help train Solomons police, and equipment including shields, helmets and batons.
Blinken’s visit to Fiji, the first by a U.S secretary of state in four decades, came after the Biden administration issued a strategy overview for the Indo-Pacific in which it vowed to commit more diplomatic and security resources to the region to push back against China.
Under an action plan for the next 12 to 24 months, the document said Washington would “meaningfully expand2 its diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and prioritise key negotiations with Pacific island states that cover access for the U.S military and which have appeared to stall in the past year.
Richard Clark, a spokesman for the president of one of the island nations, the Federated States of Micronesia, told Reuters a “tremendous amount of progress2 was still needed in talks with Washington.