The Solomon Islands Caught in Great Power Politics

It’s not very often that the Solomon Islands finds itself at the center of U.S. foreign policy. This week, however, the Solomon Islands – located in a strategic and politically volatile part of the world best known on for the first land battles between the United States and its allies and Imperial Japan in the Pacific theater during World War II – is caught in the crossfire of the United States’ great power rivalry with its adversary, China, as talk of a security deal signed with China is reaching the front pages of many publications around the world.

Top U.S. officials are even traveling to the South Pacific this week as a result of the security pact to reinforce to its Solomon Islands that the United States, not China, can “provide security, prosperity, and peace in the region,” according to administration officials. This trip comes a week after Australia deployed its minister of international development and the Pacific to the island nation to ask the Solomon prime minister to consider not joining the agreement.

The China-Solomon Island Security Agreement

The agreement – a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands – would allow Chinese naval ships to dock in Solomon ports to resupply and transfer crews. The deal, China’s first such security agreement in the region, would also permit Beijing to send security forces to “assist in maintaining social order” in the Solomon Islands.

While the Solomon Islands stresses that they won’t allow China to build a military base on their territory and that the nation is only simply diversifying its security relationships, the agreement has alarmed many of the Solomon Island’s neighbors. The draft deal is quite vague, perhaps purposely, and many in the region question Beijing’s true intent.

The Solomon Islands Shift toward China

The security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was almost unthinkable just a few years ago. Up until 2019, the Solomon Islands diplomatically recognized Taiwan, which caused tension with China as Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province. In 2019, however, that changed as the Solomon Islands changed its diplomatic recognition to China.

“The Switch,” as the change in foreign policy became known, emphasizes Beijing’s expanding influence in the region that has long been dominated by the United States and Australia. In fact, the agreement is a part of a wider Chinese strategy to bolster political, economic, and security ties with the island nations of the South Pacific.

The U.S. and Its Allies to Into Hyperdrive

The United States and two of its closest allies in the region – Australia and New Zealand – view the deal, and the broader implications behind it, with alarm as well. In fact, as Axios reports, the agreement sent the government of the three allied countries into “hyperdrive.” American officials were reportedly caught off guard when China and the Solomon Islands announced the signing of the agreement. New Zealand’s foreign minister noted the country’s discontent with the agreement, calling it “unwelcome and unnecessary.” Australia, who already maintains a bilateral security pact with the Solomon Islands, was similarly dismayed as the Australian prime minister noted his “great concern” about the deal.

A Little Too Close to Home

The United States, Australia, and New Zealand, along with its Quad allies in Japan and India, share one common concern about the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region: China’s growing military presence. Particularly, for the United States, allowing Beijing to gain a foothold in the Asian Pacific islands would allow China to spy on U.S. Forces based in Guam and Hawaii, both of which are relatively close to the Solomon Islands. Additionally, the existence of a military base could allow China to disrupt supply chains and lines of communication between the U.S. and its allies. As China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific grows, the more the U.S. and its allies worry about regional stability.

A Pivot to the Indo-Pacific

U.S. diplomatic efforts with the Solomon Islands as a result of the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands figures neatly into the Biden administration’s renewed pivot to Asia. The Biden administration has not been shy about shifting U.S. foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific after years of being bogged down in the Middle East’s forever wars.

As part of this strategy, the United States has employed a phalanx of alliances in the region – specifically, AUKUS and the Quad as well as strengthening traditional bilateral defense alliances with several Asian countries – as means of countering China. As key allies in the region express fear of China’s growing aggression, a security deal between China and the Solomon Islands could be just the beginning of total Chinese dominance in the region, something the United States and its allies desperately want to prevent.

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