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Indo-Pacific

China-Solomon Islands security pact raises red flags in Washington

Deal sparks speculation of Beijing's base-building ambitions

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2019. Diplomatic ties between the countries have grown closer under Sogavare.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SYDNEY -- China's new security pact with the Solomon Islands has fueled concerns over its long-term plans in the South Pacific as Beijing competes with the U.S. for influence over strategically located island nations in the region.

"We are concerned by the lack of transparency and unspecified nature of this agreement, which follows a pattern of China offering shadowy, vague deals with little regional consultation in fishing, resource management, development assistance and now security practices," a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said Tuesday, following China's announcement earlier in the day. 

A draft agreement included clauses that allow China to send troops and ships to the Solomon Islands.

A U.S. delegation, including NSC Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, will visit the Solomon Islands this week. "It seems that China announced this unilaterally" with an eye on this trip, the NSC spokesperson said.

Shortly afterward, the Solomon Islands confirmed that its Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi signed the pact.

"I ask all our neighbors, friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region," Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in a statement Wednesday.

"Solomon Islands do not have any external adversaries nor is the framework directed at any countries or external alliances [but] rather at our own internal security situation from within the state," Sogavare said.

Senior officials from the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand shared concerns over the security agreement during a meeting in Hawaii on Monday, according to the White House. The Biden administration likely plans to work with other countries in the region to urge the Solomon Islands to reconsider.

Located roughly 2,000 km northeast of Australia, the Solomon Islands are in a strategic position near sea lanes connecting Australia with the U.S. and Japan. Guadalcanal, the island home to the capital Honiara, was the site of a key battle between the U.S. and Japan during World War II.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry passes near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. A Chinese military presence there would have a major effect on U.S. and Australian naval activity in the area. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)

"A lot of things change in warfare. Not geography," Marine Corps Commandant David Berger said during a trip to Australia this month. "Where Solomon Islands are matters. It did then and it does now."

A Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would have a major effect on U.S. and Australian naval activity in the area. Australia is considering basing nuclear submarines, to be developed through the AUKUS security partnership with the U.K. and the U.S., on its east coast. Chinese troops in the Solomon Islands could monitor activity at the base, including visiting American and British submarines.

The U.S. believes China wants to keep American troops and their allies from crossing the so-called second island chain, which extends from Japan's Ogasawara Islands to Guam and Papua New Guinea. The Solomon Islands are located close to this boundary, and a Chinese military hub there would bolster Beijing's ability to prevent the U.S. and Australia from intervening in a crisis in the area.

Sogavare has said China will not build a base in the Solomon Islands under the new pact. But there is concern that China is playing the long game, laying the groundwork to eventually install permanent bases in the South Pacific without triggering as much global pushback as the move would today.

"While it does not present a direct military threat today, it is part of a patient strategy to gain more access to critical geography across the Pacific and Indian ocean regions that deserves the attention it is receiving at the highest levels of government in Washington, Canberra, and Wellington," said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former special assistant to the commander at U.S. Pacific Command.

"If the deal helps undermine governance and strategic autonomy in the Solomons, then it could easily lead to a permanent Chinese basing arrangement in the future," said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Solomon Islanders appear increasingly frustrated by their government's pro-China stance. Protests over growing ties to Beijing turned violent in November, resulting in deaths in the capital's Chinatown district. But the government has only grown closer to China, and there is speculation that they could receive economic assistance in exchange for security cooperation.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is working to bolster U.S. ties with Pacific island nations, including through negotiations to renew the Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. The U.S. provides financial and security assistance to the three countries, while the Marshall Islands hosts a U.S. missile testing site.

The Biden administration in March chose Joseph Yun, the former U.S. representative for North Korea policy, to lead the negotiations. The deadline to renew the compact with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia is coming up next year, and the U.S. hopes to revive the talks, which many see to be stalled.

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