Solomon Islands becomes an unexpected epicenter of competition between the United States and China

A US delegation led by top White House and State Department officials for Asia is heading this week to the Solomon Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific of fewer than 700,000 people that has unexpectedly become ground zero for the US-China competition.

why does it matter: A planned security agreement with Beijing, which could allow the Chinese navy to dock warships on the islands, has been negotiated, sending the United States and its allies in Australia and New Zealand into an overly diplomatic race.

  • A US administration official told Axios that US officials heading to the islands would assure that the US, not China, “can provide security, prosperity, and peace in the region.”

News leadership: According to the draft agreement that began circulating on the Internet Last month, Solomon Islands may ask Chinese security forces to restore “social order”. Once they reach the islands, they will also have the authority to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects”.

  • The grumbling about a deal came just weeks after Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced in February that the United States would open an embassy in Honiara, the capital, to increase outreach to the islands, where there has been a fierce internal debate over relations with China.
  • Senior US officials have been directing calls to Honiara, and the State Department and the Pentagon have issued warnings about the “export” of Chinese security forces and a “disturbing precedent” for the region.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison A senior diplomat dispatched to the islands described the pending deal as “a major concern”, with New Zealand echoing those sentiments.

  • Between the lines: Both agreement could see Chinese naval ships docking about 1,250 miles northeast of Australia, and suggest that Canberra’s traditional influence in the South Pacific is waning.
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But the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavari He rejected “extremely offensive” insinuations that his country was “unqualified to manage our sovereign affairs.”

  • He said the Solomon Islands would not allow China to build a military base, but he “diversificationits security partnerships.
  • He recently told Parliament that he was ready to sign the deal, per WSJ.
  • US officials, led by White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Krettenbrink, will try to change his mind. The US administration official said that they “will talk with the US Agency for International Development about a range of ways to provide assistance in the region.”

recovery: Matt Pottinger, the chief Asia expert on former President Trump’s National Security Council, Visit The Solomon Islands in March 2019 amid concerns that the small country – one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners at the time – had shifted its allegiance to China.

  • Despite a diplomatic push from Washington Islands Cut the relationships With Taiwan in September 2019.
  • Pottinger told Axios on Monday that the United States should be “very, very active” in the Pacific islands region. “US and Australian Pacific policy cannot fly on autopilot when the competition is as remote as it is, when China is so focused on military bases, influence, and intelligence gathering in that region.”
  • Pottinger said that if China establishes bases across the Pacific, it could threaten US supply lines in the event of war.

Marine Corps Commander General David Berger observed this week On a trip to Australia, the geographical location of the Solomon Islands was important during World War II – when a decisive battle was fought on Guadalcanal, the largest island in the archipelago – and remains so today.

  • He also warned that the security agreement was “too good to believe” for the islands and would come with conditions.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson He said last month That states that have long sent “military planes and ships to the doorstep of others” should not “lightly” object to such “mutually beneficial cooperation.”
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Drama: Relations with China are controversial within the islands themselves.

  • The provincial government on Malaita, the most populous island, challenged Sugavari in 2019 by maintaining links with Taiwan. Controversially, the US has promised Malaita $35 million in direct US aid in 2020.
  • When protesters from Malaita tried to storm parliament last November, Sugavari blamed “deliberate lies” about the diplomatic shift from China to Taiwan and interference from “external forces”.

what do you want to watch: Charles Edel, head of Australia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the “vague” language in the draft agreement could benefit Beijing.

  • “The Chinese government has a track record of denying its true intentions while taking measures to militarize its advanced presence and interfere in the internal politics of foreign countries,” he adds.

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