China is using its deep pockets to expand its presence in the Pacific islands. It appears that Beijing is trying to peel away diplomatic allies from Taiwan while securing access to sea lanes. Advocates of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" must not stand idly by.
The Solomon Islands have become the latest focus of the diplomatic tug of war between Beijing and Taipei. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has said the country will decide within the year whether to maintain relations with Taiwan or switch to mainland China. Observers suggest that the Solomon Islands seek to play the two off against each other to extract more aid.
Beijing has penetrated remarkably deeply into the economies of Pacific nations in recent years. The perception that the Solomon Islands are less developed than other island countries, such as Fiji, that have diplomatic relations with mainland China has been a source of frustration.
Since Taiwan's independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has embarked on a campaign to isolate it internationally. The few countries maintaining formal diplomatic relations with Taipei have decreased by five in the past three years alone.
Six of the remaining 17 are Pacific island nations. Facing a presidential election this coming January, Tsai's government would be dealt another diplomatic blow by losing the Solomons.
As well as Taiwan, Australia has been sensitive to mainland China's growing Pacific influence. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government has made strengthening relationships with Pacific nations a cornerstone of its foreign policy, and this June it pledged 250 million Australian dollars ($171 million) in aid to the Solomon Islands.
In the U.S., the Trump administration is wary of Beijing expanding its maritime sphere of influence, particularly given its "militarization" in the South China Sea.
But Pacific nations distrust the current governments in both Canberra and Washington, which have been reluctant to take steps to address climate change -- a threat to which these islands are particularly vulnerable. Coal-exporting Australia came in for heavy criticism this August at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu for refusing to endorse a declaration on the issue.
Japan has worked to build ties with Pacific nations through such channels as its triennial Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting. Even as Tokyo cooperates more closely with the U.S. and Australia to secure sea lanes, it must encourage these two partners to tackle global environmental issues.