CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — A small chain of islands in the South Pacific has Western governments struggling after it agreed to a security pact with China that the United States and its allies fear could enhance Beijing’s military might in this strategically important region. .
The deal between China and the Solomon Islands, a nation of 700,000 that saw deadly unrest last year, poses “serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” officials from the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand said. it’s a statement. On Wednesday.
Alarm in Washington and other capitals is so high that the highest-profile US delegation in years visited the Solomon Islands on Friday. Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top Asia official, and Daniel Kritenbrink, Under Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara, the capital.
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Campbell was expected to warn Sogavare against the deal, the details of which have not been publicly disclosed, but that was anticipated days before his visit when Beijing and Honiara announced they had already signed it. According to a draft leaked online in March, the deal allows China to send police and armed forces to the Solomon Islands “to help maintain social order” and Chinese warships to call there.
The deal is a “game changer,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
“The United States is the primary target of this move as it aims to counter the US containment strategy in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “But it also directly threatens the security and autonomy of Pacific Island states, as well as Australia and New Zealand.”
Among their concerns is that the deal could allow China to set up a military base, its first in the Pacific, less than 1,300 miles from Australia, whose relations with Beijing are at their lowest point in years. The Solomon Islands are also on key shipping lanes between the US and Asia.
Leaders of small Pacific island nations, the scene of some of the fiercest battles of World War II, have expressed concern that they may once again be drawn into conflict between major powers. In an open letter last month, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David W. Panuelo, implored Sogavare to consider the “serious and far-reaching security implications” of the deal with China.
In their meeting on Friday, Sogavare assured the US delegation that the deal would not give China a military base, a long-term presence or power projection capabilities, according to a White House statement. China’s Foreign Ministry also says the deal is about maintaining stability in the Solomon Islands and “is not directed at any third party.”
“The normal law enforcement and security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands, two sovereign and independent countries, is consistent with international law and customary international practice,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a statement. press conference last month.
Beijing accused Washington of promoting a “cold war mentality” in the Indo-Pacific through initiatives like Aukus, a security partnership with Australia and Britain that the Biden administration announced last year. Even before the deal with China was leaked online, the United States said it planned to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands for the first time since 1993.
The Solomon Islands has moved closer to China under Sogavare, handing Beijing a major victory in 2019 when it severed long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Concerns about China’s role in the country’s affairs and allegations of Beijing-linked corruption contributed to violent riots in November that targeted the capital’s Chinatown, killing four people. Australia sent peacekeepers under its own security agreement with the country.
According to Sogavare, the security pact with Beijing is necessary in part so that Chinese police can protect Chinese-funded infrastructure. But opposition leader Matthew Wale said he feared Sogavare, who tried to postpone the 2023 general election, might use Chinese forces to prop up his rule.
The Solomon Islands Foreign Ministry did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
“The stakes are high,” Cleo Paskal, a US-based Indo-Pacific analyst, said of the deal.
“The ties to China center around one individual, Sogavare, and are increasingly unpopular in the Solomons. The country is one free and fair election away from not only abrogating the security agreement, but also returning to Taiwan,” she said.
“This raises concerns that a ‘security incident’ will occur or be created that will be used as a pretext to cancel the election and invite PRC security forces,” he added, using the initials of China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who is from the Solomon Islands, said the Sogavare government would not allow Beijing to build a military facility and was merely seeking to exploit global rivalries.
“The West is very, very anxious” about China’s growing influence in the region, he said, “and it’s playing into the hands of the Solomon Islands government. They are trying to create a situation where they can take advantage of both the West and the PRC to see if the country can win as much as possible.”
While it likely has some military presence in the Solomon Islands, Kabutaulaka said, China doesn’t need its own base there.
“If their ships and navy can gain access to the Solomon Islands, they won’t need a permanent physical presence,” he said. “And any military base would generate a huge debate that could become a political liability” for the Honiara and Beijing governments.
Iati Iati, a Pacific security fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told NBC News that he doesn’t see “the same level of alarm” among Pacific island nations as he does in Australia and New Zealand. .
Those two countries, which see the Pacific as their backyard, will not influence their neighbors if they “continue to act in a high-handed and condescending manner when problems like this arise,” Iati said.
The Pacific has already been militarized, he said, citing a new US military base being built in Micronesia and US- and Australian-funded upgrades to a naval base in Papua New Guinea.
“They talk about respecting the sovereignty of the Pacific Island countries, but then they claim that they know what is best for the security needs of these countries,” Iati said. “The responses from government circles in Australia and New Zealand reek of neo-colonial sentiments that Pacific Island countries seem to have grown tired of.”
Reaction to the China-Solomon Islands security deal has been especially strong in Australia, where an election campaign is underway. One commentator called it “Australia’s Cuban missile crisis” and said Australian forces should invade the Solomon Islands if necessary to block the deal. An Australian government minister flew to the Solomon Islands this month to try to persuade Sogavare not to go ahead.
Kabutaulaka said the way Australia and other countries think about the Pacific has not kept up with reality.
“China is a power that is in the region to stay,” he said. “The challenge for the Pacific island nations is to manage both the relationship with China and with Western countries in a way that benefits them and ensures they don’t get trampled.”