U.S to send officials to Solomon Islands due to tensions over China security pact

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

Kurt Campbell will fly to the Solomon Islands this month, according to four people familiar with the plan. He is expected to travel with Daniel Kritenbrink, the top state department Asia official. Their visit comes as the small Pacific nation emerges as a strategic battleground between the U.S and China.

The U.S has been increasingly worried about the Solomon Islands since it switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 2019. Those concerns have intensified after the leak of a draft security pact that would give China a toehold in a part of the Pacific that is closer to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii than to Beijing.

The draft agreement — which has not yet been signed — paves the way for China to deploy troops and police on the islands. It also says Chinese security personnel would guard any Chinese navy vessels that dock in the Solomon Islands.

“It’s a pretty broadly scoped agreement that seems to leave the door wide open for future deployment of People’s Republic of China security and military forces to the Solomon Islands,” said a senior state department official.

“We’ve concerns about what this might mean for the security interests of our friends across the Pacific Islands.

“We would be concerned that if PRC security — or maybe even military forces — were to be introduced into the region in a non-transparent, non-co-operative, non-collaborative manner…That is very likely to increase tension.”

Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, has denied that the pact would allow China to build a base. But underscoring the concern from the US and its allies, Andrew Shearer, head of Australia’s national intelligence office, and Paul Symon, head of its overseas spy service, this week visited Honiara, the capital.

During the second world war, the Solomon Islands was the location of the “Battle of Guadalcanal” which took place between 1942-43 and was pivotal in helping to turn the direction of the war against Japan, which wanted to build an air 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”, such as a Chinese base.

Charles Edel, an Australia expert at CSIS, said the pact was concerning because China had a record of denying it would do things — such as vowing not to militarise South China Sea islands — before proceeding.

“Chinese bases…. would help create spheres of influence that sculpt the politics of the region, threaten our allies, and in a conflict have the potential to both delay and degrade the flow of U.S forces into the region,” said Edel. “When the Chinese military projects power further into the Pacific, it gives it more ability to watch, track and target U.S forces.”

Campbell in January also warned that the US and its allies had a “very short amount of time…to step up our game across the board”. His visit is designed to renew engagement 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 U.S Ambassador to Australia, this week said it was important that Washington be “more visible” in the region.

One person said Campbell was creating an initiative called “Partners of Pacific” to help Pacific island nations counter coercive activity from China.

Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman, said the pact was a “big deal” that underscored how Washington had not paid enough attention to islands from Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu. He said the U.S had to build more creative partnerships in the region, particularly to prepare for the possibility of a conflict with China over Taiwan.

“Some might think the Solomon Islands is small, but….it’s a big indicator of the fact that we’ve neglected this region for too long.”

Catherine Ebert-Gray, who managed relations with the Solomon Islands as U.S Ambassador to Papua New Guinea until late 2019, said locals argued that they had for years asked the U.S to be more engaged, but Washington was juggling many priorities and Australia was doing a good job managing relations with Honiara. But she said the U.S focus started to return in recent years, even before it switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

“When I started my role as Ambassador in the region there was zero interest in Washington in opening a new embassy, but we continued to make the case and as China’s influence continued to grow…there was a quick reversal,” said Ebert-Gray, now education director at the University of Colorado.

She also pointed to the Peace Corps decision to start a programme in the Solomons after two decades. In February, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, visited Fiji, where the U.S is also vying with China for influence, and pledged more regional help on climate change and Covid-19 for the region.

The state department official said the U.S donated more than 52,000 doses of Covid vaccines to the Solomons this week, following a donation of 100,000 doses late last year. He said the U.S was also helping clear unexploded weapons from the second world war, while the US coast guard was tackling illegal fishing.

Ami Bera, the Democratic chair of the House foreign affairs Asia subcommittee, said the U.S had to ensure China could not use security pacts in the region in the way that it employed “salami slicing” tactics in the South China Sea to gradually militarise a number of reefs and islands.

“Give them an inch, they’re gonna take a foot. Give them a foot, they’re gonna take a yard…You’ve got to stop them on that first inch,” said Bera, who has co-introduced the “Blue Pacific Act” to boost funding for diplomacy and development to counter China.

“It’s a lot easier to prevent a war than it is to fight a direct confrontation,” said Bera.

SOURCE: THE FINANCIAL TIMES/PACNEWS