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International relations

China's new ties with Solomon Islands flash on US radar

Strategists fear Beijing's extended power projection in South Pacific

A search and rescue swimmer assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer stands watch aboard an inflatable boat in the Pacific. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- The Thursday edition of China's state-run People's Daily newspaper featured a photo of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese President Xi Jinping smiling and shaking hands splashed across its front page. The two leaders met in Beijing on Wednesday, weeks after the island nation cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switched to the mainland.

In a news conference, Xi announced economic support for the Solomons and welcomed their entry into the "big family" of mutual cooperation among China and Pacific island countries.

The rapid turn of events has raised alarm bells in Washington. While the newfound camaraderie is limited to handshakes and perhaps some infrastructure projects, strategists in Washington worry about the possibility of a more substantial Chinese military buildup in the South Pacific. A defense white paper released by Beijing in July states that China is "strengthening military exchanges with developing countries" there and elsewhere.

The Solomon Islands are strategically positioned along a key sea lane between Australia and the U.S. state of Hawaii. Kiritimati, one of the easternmost islands of Kiribati -- another nation that recently flipped from Taipei to Beijing -- sits south of Hawaii, where the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command is headquartered. Rumors have circulated about the two island nations building military ports with Chinese support.

Deeper military cooperation of this sort could vastly improve the ability of the People's Liberation Army to monitor areas and project power far from mainland China, potentially constraining American forces in the process.

National flags of the Solomon Islands and China flutter above Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Oct. 7.   © Reuters

Beijing's diplomatic blitz is the latest maneuver in the escalating tug of war between the U.S. and China in the South Pacific. Beijing has been wooing more countries away from Taiwan with pledges of financial support while a worried Washington scrambles to shore up its strategic position.

On Monday, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial U.S. embassy there, held the first U.S.-Taiwan Pacific Islands Dialogue in Taipei. Attendees included de facto ambassadors to Taiwan from Nauru, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.

"We firmly support Taiwan’s relationships with Pacific island nations," Sandra Oudkirk, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific islands, said at the event.

Washington, which had worked since this past spring to arrange the dialogue, has urged Pacific islands to maintain these ties. But the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched allegiance to China just last month, not long before the event, in a loss of face for the U.S.

Washington has stepped up engagement this year with Pacific island countries as part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, a counterweight to China's Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to gain influence through infrastructure projects. In a June report, the U.S. Department of Defense called the Pacific islands "critical" to this strategy.

Mike Pompeo in August made the first visit by a sitting U.S. secretary of state to Micronesia, meeting with the leaders of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. He affirmed that Washington would strengthen defense and economic cooperation with these countries, including disaster relief.

But the fact that the both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut ties with Taipei in September is seen as symbolic of the declining American clout in the region. 

Taiwan still maintains diplomatic relations with four South Pacific nations -- Tuvalu, Palau, the Marshalls and Nauru -- but these ties are not exactly solid.

A lawmaker in Palau has reportedly argued openly for establishing official ties with Beijing by 2020, saying that the country should focus more on China for infrastructure and development. Beijing has also pressured Palau to switch sides, banning group tours there in 2017.

Should Palau do so, the consequences for the U.S. could be significant. The two countries have a contract under which Washington provides Palau with financial support and Palau lets the U.S. military use its land if necessary.

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