A leaked draft of a Solomon Islands-China security agreement has led to heightened concern over the island nation’s turn toward China. Washington dispatched a high-level delegation in late April to the island nation, days after China said the pact had been signed, saying it would “intensify engagement in the region.” The United States and its regional partners, particularly Australia and New Zealand, are worried about the potential of Chinese military bases on the islands, although the details of the agreement remain vague — which is itself a source of concern. As part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Biden administration aims to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific, an objective that could be complicated by China’s prospective new arrangement with Solomon Islands.
Ambassador Judith Cefkin, a former U.S. envoy to a number of Pacific Island countries, explains why deepening Solomon Islands-China ties are concerning for the United States, how it’s responded and how the agreement might impact other islands nations’ engagement with Washington and Beijing.
Why is the recently concluded Solomon Islands-China security agreement concerning to Washington?
The agreement signed by the two governments on April 1 has not been released publicly, but based on what we know from a draft leaked in late March, the language is vague, raising questions about China’s intentions. For example, the agreement appears to give China the ability to send Chinese security personnel to Solomon Islands to protect Chinese nationals and property there. Although that would reportedly only be done with approval of the Solomon Islands government, such a deployment would be highly unusual, and the terms governing this possible contingency are not clearly spelled out. The agreement also refers to possible Chinese ship visits to Solomon Islands “to carry out logistical replenishment,” prompting the question of whether this foreshadows basing arrangements.
The United States and Solomon Islands share an important historical strategic connection. The critical WWII battle of Guadalcanal fought in the Solomons galvanized the Allies’ offensive advantage in the Pacific campaign. Today, U.S. and allied security presence in the Pacific, which safeguards freedom of navigation, has been a foundation for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s also important to understand the critical role U.S. ally Australia plays in Pacific security and as a lead development provider to the Pacific Island region (including to Solomons). Solomon Islands is around 1,000 miles from Australia’s mainland. A Chinese military presence in Solomons could potentially seek to impede maritime traffic between other parts of the Pacific to Australia, thwarting a key component of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Another concern is how the agreement and burgeoning Solomon Islands-China cooperation will affect Solomon Islands governance and internal stability. In addition to the concerns expressed by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other partners, many Solomons Island opposition politicians and a number of civil society groups also have questions and concerns about the agreement. They note the lack of transparency surrounding the negotiation of the agreement, the absence of parliamentary or public discussion, and continuing secrecy regarding the final text of the agreement. And they question how the agreement serves Solomon Islanders’ interests.
An archipelago of some 1,000 islands, Solomon Islands is diverse, and ethnic tensions have at times erupted in violence. In 2003, at the request of Solomon authorities, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and other Pacific neighbors sent a peacekeeping mission to quell ongoing civil unrest. This mission ended in 2017, but in November 2021 new protests resulted in looting and destruction of numerous properties, including many Chinese-owned businesses, in the capital, Honiara. One of the various precipitating factors in the riots was dissatisfaction over the government’s 2019 decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, which highlighted domestic inter-island tensions on the issue. Australia and other regional partners again helped stabilize the situation. China then offered to help train and equip Solomons police, providing the genesis of the new agreement. Any heavy-handed Chinese response to future unrest, however, would further inflame internal tensions.
How has the United States responded?
On April 22, a high-level U.S. delegation headed by U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Dan Kritenbrink visited Honiara to discuss U.S.-Solomon Islands relations and pledge deepened cooperation. (The visit had been planned prior to the finalization of the Solomon Islands-China security agreement.) The visit followed a February announcement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken of plans to reopen a U.S. Embassy in Honiara. In their meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare, the U.S. delegation promised to expedite the reestablishment of the embassy. The delegation also pledged increased cooperation in dealing with unexploded ordinances, support for health programs, delivery of more COVID vaccines, initiatives to address climate change, a program to develop maritime domain awareness, stepped-up people-to-people ties, a dialogue on the return of the Peace Corps program to Solomon Islands and the establishment of a high-level strategic dialogue.
This visit was part of a broader strategy to elevate U.S. engagement with the Pacific Island region. Last August, President Biden participated in a virtual gathering of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) leaders, becoming the first U.S. president to do so. And in February, Blinken became the first U.S. secretary of state in 36 years to visit Fiji. While in Fiji, Blinken also met virtually with PIF representatives, where he announced plans for increased cooperation in several domains, including plans for the embassy in Honiara. The Campbell-Kritenbrink delegation also visited Fiji and Papua New Guinea, to continue strategic talks with those two key Pacific Island nations.
A White House statement on the delegation’s travel, reaffirmed the administration’s intent to “deepen our enduring ties” with the region, to “advance a free, open, resilient Indo-Pacific,” and to “coordinate with allies and partners on 21st century challenges.” The statement reiterated U.S. respect for the “rights of nations to make sovereign decisions,” but expressed concerns over the “purpose, scope, and transparency” of the Solomons’ security agreement with China. The statement warned that if the agreement leads to a de facto permanent Chinese military presence, power-projection capabilities or military installations, “the U.S. would have significant concerns and respond accordingly.” Sogavare, for his part, provided assurances that the Solomons would not host a Chinese military base, long-term presence or power-projection capability.
How could this impact how other island nations in the region engage with Washington and Beijing? Given the attention the Solomon Islands has garnered, could these states try to play Washington and Beijing off against each other?
The Solomon Islands-China agreement has caused unease in the region. Pacific Island countries do not want to be caught in the middle of U.S.-China geostrategic competition. This angst was clear in an appeal the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) President David Panuelo sent to Sogavare urging him to reject the China agreement. In his publicly released letter, Panuelo, while noting FSM’s close relations with the United States, stated that FSM’s bilateral relations with China had been very beneficial to his country. He said his ideal would be for all in the region to be friends, but that unfortunately the United States and China “are increasingly at odds.” Labeling the Solomon Islands-China pact “far-reaching and unprecedented,” Panuelo feared that it could make the Pacific Island region the epicenter of a future great power confrontation.
Panuelo’s view highlights a core understanding that should shape U.S. engagement in with the region: namely that Pacific Islanders’ biggest security worries are the threats posed by the transnational challenges of climate change, degradation of ocean resources, pandemics and other public health threats. They view great power competition as a distraction from these priorities. In their partnerships with the United States and China (as well as other development partners) the island nations seek help in tackling these challenges and in meeting their economic development goals. This is captured well in an tweet by Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who said “On the heels of @SecBlinken’s historic visit, I met with top American officials to strengthen Fiji-US cooperation for an open and secure #Blue Pacific. I made clear that Fiji sees security as synonymous with resilience, new blue and green jobs, and global net-zero emissions.”
Playing partners off against each other, also referred to as “check-book diplomacy,” has been an issue. The lure of Chinese infrastructure projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, was a factor in the Solomons’ decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, as well as in the near simultaneous switch by the nation of Kiribati. To remain a trusted partner and elevate its standing with Pacific Island countries, the United States should respond more consistently and effectively to islanders’ priorities, but this need not be a “bidding war.” Rather than seeking to match Chinese aid (much of which is in the form of loans rather than grants) dollar-for-dollar, the U.S. advantage is in the high standards its assistance conforms to, the absence of political “strings” attached, the ability to combine resources with like-minded partners (particular lead regional donors Australia, New Zealand and Japan), and a values agenda, which resonates with Pacific Island aspirations. As the United States works to respond to many transnational and geostrategic challenges confronting the Pacific neighborhood, building Pacific Island resilience is fundamentally in the U.S. interest.
A retired career foreign service officer, Ambassador Cefkin served (2015-2018) as the U.S. envoy to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu and as the U.S. representative to several Pacific regional organizations. Other postings in her 35-year diplomatic career included Thailand, the Philippines, Bosnia-Hercegovina, France, Mexico and numerous Washington assignments. In retirement, she is active with several Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy and national security organizations and is an occasional commentator on Pacific Island affairs.