The last time most Americans paid attention to the Solomon Islands was in the middle of World War II, when the United States and Japan waged a prolonged naval battle in the waters and skies surrounding Guadalcanal. That grinding fight had outsized strategic effects—halting the Japanese advance into the South Pacific, ensuring that allied nations such as Australia and New Zealand were neither surrounded nor cut off from supply by hostile forces, reversing the war’s momentum in the Pacific, and providing a base to launch a counteroffensive against a totalitarian enemy. Pointing to the hundreds of small islands spread across the Pacific, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt explained to the American public that while they might “appear only as small dots on most maps . . . they cover a large strategic area.”

That large strategic area, key to fighting and winning World War II, suffered from considerable neglect over the last several decades as U.S. strategy and policy focused elsewhere. That now must change. In April, the government of the Solomon Islands announced that it had signed a tentative security pact with China, and in late May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to the region in an effort to secure more agreements from Pacific Island countries. The Solomon Islands security pact contained vague and expansive language that appears to open the door for China to play a role in quelling internal unrest in the Solomon Islands by allowing Beijing to deploy Chinese police and military forces at the Solomon Islands’ request to “maintain social order.” The pact, and potential future deals with other Pacific Island states, could undermine regional security by extending the reach of the Chinese military, giving it access to a critical maritime chokepoint, and thrusting the Pacific Islands into the middle of a globe-spanning geopolitical competition.

China’s deal with the Solomon Islands and its efforts to obtain similar agreements with other Pacific nations have set off alarm bells both inside and outside the region. China certainly has the ability to provide much needed investment in infrastructure in the region, but local populations are wary due to their well-founded view that Chinese investments are as much about advancing Beijing’s interests and corrupting local politics as they are about meeting local needs. Nowhere is this truer than in the Solomon Islands, where more than 90 percent of people said that they preferred their country aligning with liberal democracies instead of China, and nearly 80 percent said they did not want their country receiving financial aid from China. 

And yet, in Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Beijing found a willing partner. Sogavare’s decision to sign this deal not only put him at cross-purposes with many of his own citizens, but also the broader Pacific Island community, which is not favorably disposed to an authoritarian power setting up military bases in their midst. New Zealand’s foreign minister condemned the agreement as both “unwelcome and unnecessary,” while Micronesia’s president wrote to Sogavare that he feared such a deal would make the Pacific Islands “the epicenter of a future confrontation.” The reaction has been most anguished in Australia, with some likening the deal to the Cuban missile crisis and others claiming it as the worst failure in Australian foreign policy since World War II.

The announcement of the security agreement between Honiara and Beijing, and China’s diplomatic push, should serve as a wake-up call to the United States and its allies. Their engagement with the countries of the region has fallen short. Washington must expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific Islands, support multilateralism in the region, back development initiatives, and take seriously the existential concerns many of these countries harbor about climate change. An urgent change in approach is needed to prevent Beijing from further undermining democracy and expanding its military footprint across the Pacific. 

BEIJING’S PACIFIC STRATEGY

The security deal between China and the Solomon Islands did not materialize out of thin air. China has ramped up its presence and extended its influence across the Pacific over the past decade by courting the region’s elite, building bonds with regional institutions, and increasing both its aid and its investments across the region. As it has done so, Beijing has been on the hunt for strategically located real estate that would allow it to project power outward and further influence the politics of the broader Indo-Pacific region. Reports have emerged of Chinese-owned companies seeking to develop deep-water ports and airfields in Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and other locations across the Pacific.

Washington must expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific Islands.

Despite repeated claims from China that it has no intention of establishing a military base in the Solomon Islands or elsewhere in the region, its track record and its ambitions suggest otherwise. In Cambodia, Djibouti, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, China has initiated major infrastructure projects that have resulted in China obtaining access to strategically significant port facilities. And as Beijing has demonstrated in the South China Sea when it claimed and subsequently militarized unoccupied islands, the Chinese government has a track record of publicly denying its true intentions while taking steps to enlarge its global military footprint.  

Beijing’s search for a military foothold in the Pacific represents an expansion of what it has already done elsewhere. Establishing a presence in this region could accomplish several strategic goals at once—securing Chinese sea lines of communication, increasing intelligence collection on allied forces, keeping Australia and New Zealand boxed in, and complicating any U.S. plans to move forces into the region. With this deal, the Solomon Islands has now opened the door for a Chinese military presence in the Pacific. The question for the United States and its allies now is how to respond.

A NEW FOCUS ON THE ISLANDS

There has been intense debate—especially inside of Australia— about how exactly the Solomon Islands deal occurred, and whether Australia, the United States, or any other country could have done more to forestall such a deal. This has hit a particularly raw nerve in Australia, where every government in the postwar era has worked to prevent a hostile power from gaining a military presence in the South Pacific. Although it may be worthwhile to conduct an inquiry into why this happened, a blame game is less productive than using this moment to focus on how the United States and its allies can work together to mitigate further fallout and prevent China from signing similar deals elsewhere. 

For the past several decades, the Pacific has not been an area of focus for U.S. foreign policy.  That seems to be changing, but unless the new attention is directed on genuinely trying to meet the region’s needs, it is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm. The Pacific Islands governments are concerned about the nature of Chinese activities in the Pacific states, but it is not their primary concern. Rather, regional leaders emphasize the importance of finding ways to drive development, build needed infrastructure, and address the existential risks of climate change to which low-lying Pacific Island states are especially vulnerable. The easiest way to earn trust and become a better regional partner will be to work with the Pacific Island states—individually, collectively, and regularly—to address these concerns, which were laid out by Pacific Island leaders in the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security that embraced an “expanded concept of security” to deal with the range of challenges facing the Pacific.

What happens in the Solomon Islands has security implications for the region.

Doing so will require pursuing more robust commitments to offsetting climate change, closely monitoring the Pacific Islands’ coastal waters to curb illegal fishing, and preventing resource exploitation by Chinese fisherman. In addition, the United States and its partners should promote more open labor markets to allow for residents of the Pacific Islands to work elsewhere in the region based on employment needs and support educational initiatives to offer more opportunities for Pacific Island youth to pursue an education overseas. The United States and its partners should invest in projects that improve basic infrastructure and expand access to health care and Internet connectivity in the Pacific Islands. Legislatures in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere can also find ways to collaborate with their democratically elected counterparts across the Pacific Islands to discuss ways to improve governmental accountability. All of these commitments will require greater resources from the United States and its partners, changes in domestic legislation in multiple countries to allow for expanded work permits, and more sustained engagement with the region.

The United States can also demonstrate a renewed commitment to the Pacific Islands by making some key bureaucratic changes. Washington may be planning to reopen the U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands that it closed in 1993, but the Biden administration has not yet appointed ambassadors to either Fiji or Papua New Guinea. It does not have resident ambassadors in Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, or Vanuatu (they are currently represented by U.S. regional ambassadors). It is hard to make an argument for serious and sustained engagement with the Pacific community without an active U.S. presence. Beyond those posts, Washington should consider naming an ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum, modeled on the position of the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Additionally, Washington needs to renew its compacts of free association with the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. For decades, these deals have allowed the United States to limit other states’ military access to compact countries in exchange for U.S. political, development, and defense guarantees. 

The United States should also support multilateralism in the region. Washington should commit to more consistent and high-level attendance as a dialogue partner at the Pacific Islands Forum’s annual summit. It should express interest in associate membership in the forum for two U.S. Pacific Island territories—American Samoa and Guam—and establish a regular meeting with the Pacific Islands Forum akin to Japan’s biennial meeting with leaders of Pacific Island countries.

COMMITTING TO THE PACIFIC

Of course, neither long-term policy adjustments nor near-term bureaucratic adjustments answer the more immediate challenge posed by the influx of Chinese investment and the potential establishment of a Chinese military presence in the region. In tackling the former, democratic partners should support anticorruption and transparency initiatives and fund independent media in the Pacific Islands. On dealing with the latter, diplomatic efforts should prioritize circumscribing Beijing and Honiara’s secret agreement, to ensure that it remains an agreement in theory but not in practice. And because Beijing’s denials are so often precursors to further activity, Washington should begin the work of warning regional leaders about what the Chinese militarization of the Pacific would look like and what responses such militarization would necessitate from the United States. Chinese militarization in the region would result in environmental damage, the Pacific Island countries ceding sovereignty, and an inevitable response by the United States and its allies, which could draw the Pacific Islands into a future conflict. 

What happens in the Solomon Islands has broader security implications for the region and should be seen as part of a systematic effort by Beijing to extend its presence in the Pacific, advance the tools of authoritarian control, undercut U.S. access to the region, and constrict the freedom of movement of U.S. allies. The ongoing developments in the Pacific should underscore the critical importance for the United States of engaging the many oft-neglected countries of the Pacific Islands. They should also serve as an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of U.S. and allied policy toward this vital region, and encourage Washington to be more creative, more proactive, and more committed to the Pacific.

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  • CHARLES EDEL is Australia Chair and a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff from 2015 to 2017.
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