US warns Solomon Islands over China agreement

The deal has alarmed the US and its allies which are concerned that the Chinese could gain a military foothold in the South Pacific.

Nirmal Ghosh

Nirmal Ghosh

The Straits Times


April 27, 2022

WASHINGTON – Senior US officials, in a 90-minute meeting last week with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and two dozen members of his Cabinet and senior staff, made it “crystal clear” that any attempt to establish a military base in the country under its recent agreement with China would be met with a response by the United States.

“Our purpose was to explain to our friends… but also to communicate in a very candid way the concerns that we have about the security agreement they have concluded with China,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said on Monday (April 25) in Washington, in a call with journalists.

He did not elaborate on what kind of response that would be. But given the strength of the reaction to the Solomon Islands’ deal with China, especially in the US, Australia and New Zealand, analysts fully expect it to be military.

Amid the diplomatic activity triggered by the deal – including a visit to the South Pacific nation by a Japanese delegation led by Foreign Vice-Minister Kentaro Uesugi – Mr Sogavare has been reiterating that a Chinese military base is out of the question.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday also said any suggestion that China was planning to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands was “entirely disinformation fabricated by people with ulterior motives”.

Mr Kritenbrink said Mr Sogavare had reiterated “specific assurances that there would be no military base… no long-term presence, no power projection capability”. But he slammed the “complete lack of transparency” over the agreement, and questioned its motives.

“It is clear that only a handful of people in a very small circle have seen this agreement, and the Prime Minister has said he will only share the details with China’s permission – which is a source of concern,” he said.

Lack of transparency is characteristic of China’s activities across the region, he charged.

The visit to the Solomon Islands was the final leg of the US delegation’s trip across the Pacific, which included stops in Hawaii, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. The delegation was led by President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell.

The deal has alarmed the US and its allies, especially Australia and New Zealand which are concerned that the Chinese could gain a military foothold in the South Pacific – seen by them as their “backyard”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the weekend called a potential Chinese base a “red line”, adding: “We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep.”

There is a perception that the US took its eye off the ball in the South Pacific. The deal with China was concluded even as Mr Kritenbrink and Mr Campbell were on their way to the region last week, and Washington now wants to re-establish a diplomatic presence in the Solomon Islands.

According to the draft agreement that began circulating online last month, the Solomon Islands could request Chinese security forces to restore “social order”.

Once on the islands, the forces would also have the authority to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects”. China’s navy could also dock warships at the islands for “logistical replenishment”.

This raises the possibility of China’s navy projecting power into the Pacific, an arena the US and its allies so far dominate virtually unchallenged.

Amid the chorus of outrage, especially in Australia, analysts are divided on the military usefulness of a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands, given its distance from China – some 6,000km from, say, Shanghai.

Some commentators in Australia have compared the situation to Communist Cuba – even though the Solomon Islands is more than 1,500 km from Australia’s coast; Cuba is less than 200km from the US coast.

Given the logistical challenges and the vulnerability of any establishment on the Solomon Islands, the country would be “useless as a base” but useful as an “outpost”, military historian and strategist Edward Luttwak told The Straits Times.

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