NADI (Fiji) – The United States will re-establish an embassy in the Solomon Islands, Secretary of State Antony Blinken (picture) said Saturday, in an effort to counter China’s influence in the politically troubled Pacific island.
Blinken announced the move during a visit to nearby Fiji, where he met virtually with around 18 Pacific island leaders to stress Washington’s attention to the region in an attempt to curb Beijing’s push for greater influence.
The United States closed its embassy in the Solomons Island capital Honiara in 1993 and is now represented by a consulate there, directed from the US embassy in Papua New Guinea.
The move comes just a few months after riots in the island chain of 800,000 people in November when protesters tried to storm parliament and then went on a three-day rampage, torching much of Honiara’s Chinatown.
The unrest was sparked by opposition to veteran Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and partly fuelled by poverty, unemployment and inter-island rivalries, but anti-China sentiment also played a role.
Pushing back against Beijing
US officials said they were particularly concerned about China’s growing influence in the Solomons.
Beijing said in December it would send police advisors and riot gear to the country as foreign peacekeepers began leaving the Pacific nation after being deployed during the deadly protests.
A subplot to November’s unrest was Sogavare’s efforts to forge closer ties with Beijing after abruptly breaking off the island’s long-time ties with Taiwan in 2019.
China baulks at any official exchanges between other countries and self-ruled Taiwan, which it sees as its own territory awaiting reunification.
The Solomons government said in December it had accepted Beijing’s offer of six “liaison officers” to train its police force and equipment including shields, helmets, batons and other “non-lethal” gear.
First visit in 37 years
The decision on the embassy was revealed on Blinken’s visit to Fiji, the first US Secretary of State to arrive on the island in 37 years.
The administration of President Joe Biden says despite its current preoccupation with the Russian threat to Ukraine, it sees the “Indo-Pacific” – where China is increasingly expanding its footprint — as the crucial focus of future security, political and economic strategy.
“What we’re increasingly going to have to do is put forward a multi-faceted strategy that’s economic, that’s strategic, that involves diplomacy, that goes to far-flung places like Fiji,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the visit.
In Fiji, Blinken had two-way talks with Acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, as Frank Bainimarama, who has led the country since a 2000 coup, remains out of sight recovering from cardiac surgery in Australia.
Blinken also held a video conference with 17 other Pacific Island nations, stressing greater attention on regional problems like illegal fishing and climate change, pledging more support from Washington.
“China clearly has ambitions in the Pacific and it’s playing out regularly and some of what they’re doing is causing real concerns,” the official said.
“We have practical, historic, moral ties and obligations to our partners in the region. We intend to live up to those,” they added.
Washington’s effort coincided with five Micronesian nations — Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau – suspending plans to break away from the Pacific Islands Forum, a crucial regional bloc of 18 island states.
Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific Islands specialist at Australia’s Lowy Institute, called Blinken’s visit “pretty significant” for the region.
“The US is clearly anxious about China’s growing presence in the region,” he said, adding that the US “just doesn’t have a significant presence in the Pacific.”
Wesley Morgan, an expert in Pacific security at Australia’s Griffith University, said the United States was in part reacting to Canberra’s own concerns about the potential for China’s military to establish its presence on Pacific Islands.
“Australia has been trying to get the US to pay more attention to the region because of those worries,” he said.
Morgan said China is helping to build airports and seaports in the region that could serve both commercial and military purposes.
China has also actively courted leaders from the region, inviting them to Beijing for one-on-one meetings with leader Xi Jinping, something the United States has not offered.
“This is about Washington reaffirming their position as security partners of choice,” he said.