The U.S. has not maintained an embassy in the Solomon Islands for decades. Australia cut foreign aid payments to the nation of just 690,000 nearly in half since 2009. Both governments were shocked when the island state, best known for the brutal World War II battle of Guadalcanal, signed a security pact with the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin explained: “We are committed to helping the Solomon Islands to strengthen its capacity building to maintain national security.” The treaty text has yet to be released, but apparently would allow China to dock ships as well as deploy police and military forces to support the government and protect its nationals. (Last year Chinese businesses were targeted by rioters.)
The response of Canberra and Washington was the equivalent of the PRC’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The U.S. and Australia both acted as if the Solomons were a disobedient child and demanded that Honiara repudiate the agreement. There were even threats of military action. The Solomon Islands are around 1200 miles from Australia, relatively close in Pacific Ocean terms. Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton pointed to the PRC’s militarization of reclaimed islands contrary to its promise to the Obama administration. The controversy has become an election issue Down Under, with the opposition Labor Party denouncing the government for its alleged negligence.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that “such an agreement could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region.” Even though Solomon’s Prime Minister Manassah Sogavare said his government did not plan on inviting Beijing to build a military base, Price complained that “the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC military forces to the Solomon Islands.”
However, Australia and the U.S. have no principled objection to a Chinese base. Canberra previously cooperated with the Solomon military, deploying peacekeepers in response to domestic strife. American bases dot the Asia-Pacific and are intended to contain China.
So far allied fulminations have only driven the archipelagic state closer to Beijing. Sogavare told his nation’s parliament: “We find it very insulting … to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs.” He denounced domestic critics as “lunatics and agents of foreign regimes.”
The Solomons are not the only potential military base for China. Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea also have received Chinese attention. So has Kiribati, which three years ago switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, and Beijing is paying to reopen a World War II airfield there.
China’s Pacific advances offer an important reminder that the real contest for the future continues to occur in Asia, not Europe, despite the ongoing Russo-Ukraine war. And it is unrealistic for the U.S. to believe that only America and its friends will be able to establish military bases.
Yet hawks in both Canberra and Washington are smelling gunpowder and promoting war. For instance, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the base issue a red line, while Dutton cited the PRC in telling Australians that they “should prepare for war” in his Anzac Day talk. Businessman and publisher David Llewellyn-Smith insisted that if necessary Canberra should “invade and capture Guadalcanal such that we engineer regime change in Honiara.” Preferably Canberra would “Get the backing and military support of Washington and drive China out of the South Pacific.”
The U.S. hinted at potential military action. For instance, Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated: “We have respect for the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent [Chinese] military presence, power projection capabilities or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns and we would very naturally respond to those concerns.” When pressed on whether that meant possible military action, Kritenbrink responded: “I’m not in a position to talk about what the United States may or may not do in such a situation.”
Sogavare bridled at such threats. Moreover, Beijing took advantage of this golden propaganda opportunity. China’s Wang pointed to the allies’ ostentatious hypocrisy in attempting to “revive the Monroe Doctrine in the South Pacific.” He might have added that aggressive U.S. and Australian officials sounded a lot like some Chinese diplomats of late.
Instead of blustering and reviving the image of the “Ugly American,” the U.S. along with Australia should revive their diplomatic skills. Their goal should be to make association with them more attractive, which suggests some combination of diplomatic contacts, financial aid, commercial ties, and friendly attention. For instance, the Biden administration promised to reopen its embassy and undertake a “high-level strategic dialogue” to address other issues. One initiative could be helping dispose of unexploded ordinance from World War II, which still kills.
Moreover, the allies should be realistic—they cannot quarantine the PRC. China is close by and its influence is growing; it will spend and risk much to advance further. Attempting to buy off every island in the region would be quite expensive and likely ultimately ineffective. Indeed, some cynics suggest that Sogavare inked the agreement in hopes of triggering a bidding war involving Washington.
Ultimately, American policymakers should better model their claimed behavior. When they promote the “free and open Indo-Pacific,” they should demonstrate that they really mean it.
The ongoing squabble over the Solomon Islands is but one of what is likely to be many such diplomatic battles in the coming years. Winning hearts and minds will be as important as building bases in dominating the Asia-Pacific. Washington should do better at diplomacy and leave military action as a last resort.