Aug 4, 2022 - World

U.S.-China competition heats up in the South Pacific

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hosts Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in 2019. Photo: Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via Getty Images

While global attention is fixed on a potential crisis between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, another tug of war between the superpowers is unfolding 3,500 miles to the southeast.

Zoom in: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy will travel this weekend to the Solomon Islands, a small South Pacific archipelago that's become a hotspot for U.S.-China competition.

  • Given their population of under 700,000, the islands have seen a remarkable level of engagement from Washington, including a high-level delegation in April.
  • The attention was due to a planned security pact between the Solomon Islands and China, which the Biden administration feared could allow Beijing to dispatch security forces there or even establish a naval base.
  • Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed the agreement over U.S. objections but insisted last month that there would be no Chinese base.
  • Furthermore, he said Australia — where news of the pact prompted frantic debates about regional influence and security — will remain the "security partner of choice," with China only called in "if there is a gap."

Driving the news: Sherman and Kennedy are officially making the trip to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was fought on the largest island in the Solomons.

  • Both of their fathers were wounded in the Solomon Islands during World War II.
  • Many of the same factors that made control of the islands pivotal during the war — their importance for maritime supply lines and proximity to U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand — are still relevant today.

Between the lines: Still, with the security pact already signed, it might seem strange to dispatch another delegation so soon.

  • But the U.S. and Australia are quietly working to limit the scope of the agreement in practice and to compete with China's growing clout in the region to avoid similar outcomes elsewhere.
  • Sherman will arrive after stops in Samoa and Tonga, the latter of which is set to host a new U.S. embassy (as are Kiribati and the Solomon Islands).
  • Earlier this year, Tony Blinken became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Fiji in 40 years.

What they're saying: In a virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) last month, Vice President Kamala Harris promised additional funding for economic development and environmental protections, and announced the U.S. would appoint an envoy to the region for the first time.

  • "We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve.  So today I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that," Harris said.

That growing sense of urgency comes as the U.S. and Australia play "whack-a-mole" to prevent other agreements that could expand Chinese influence — such as outbidding Huawei to build vital undersea cables, said Charles Edel, Australia chair at CSIS.

  • "The Chinese have been trying everywhere and [in the Solomon Islands] they found a partner willing to dance with them," Edel said.

Yes, but: When China proposed a sweeping multilateral agreement to 10 Pacific island countries in May, it reportedly found no takers. Leaders from the region often note that they need climate solidarity more than any geopolitical alliance.

What to watch: The Solomon Islands never published the terms of its deal with Beijing, but a leaked draft noted that Chinese forces could help restore order on the islands.

  • Sogavare, whose pro-China policies have been enormously contentious on the islands, wants to delay elections that are scheduled to take place next year.
  • Given the country's recent history of political violence, a worst-case scenario for the U.S. and Australia would be a delayed or disputed election, after which Sogavare turns to China to keep the peace.
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