US warns Solomon Islands over China pact; will fast track new embassy

Washington: The US will expedite the opening of an embassy in the Solomon Islands and has warned the Pacific nation that it will “respond accordingly” if steps are taken allowing China to establish a military base there.

Days after the Solomon Islands sent shock waves across the Pacific by signing a security cooperation pact with Beijing, a high-level US delegation – led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator, Kurt Campbell, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink – met with members of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government for 90 minutes on Friday to discuss their concerns.

Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands during a ceremony to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Solomon Islands and China.Credit:AP Pool

American officials told Sogavare and members of his cabinet that while the US “respected the rights of nations to make sovereign decisions in the best interest of their people”, the pact between the Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China had security risks for the region, as well as the US, Australia and its allied partners.

“The US delegation outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose, scope, and transparency of the agreement,” the White House said in a statement on Saturday (AEST).

“If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the US would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.

“In response to these enumerated concerns, Prime Minister Sogavare reiterated his specific assurances that there would be no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability, as he has said publicly.”

The pact with Beijing was signed by the Solomon Islands despite growing pressure from Australia and the US, two of its traditional allies, to reject the deal as they sought to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

It is feared the agreement could pave the way for Chinese naval vessels and troops based less than 2000 kilometres off the Australian east coast and cut off vital supply lines to the US and Asia in the event of a conflict.

According to the White House, Solomon Island representatives at the meeting “indicated that the agreement had solely domestic implications”.

However, noting that this was “a critical juncture” for the region, the US will expedite the opening of an embassy in the Solomon Islands, 29 years after America downgraded its diplomatic presence in Honiara. It will also launch a high-level strategic dialogue with the Solomon Islands through the White House and the Department of State.

American diplomat Kurt Campbell’s trip to the Solomon Islands follows lobbying efforts by Australia and New Zealand.Credit:Andrew Taylor

“Its purpose will be to enhance communication, address mutual concerns, and drive practical progress” the White House said. “In particular, both sides agreed to discuss in greater detail security issues of mutual concern, economic and social development, public health, and finance and debt.”

The US delegation also included Deputy Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka, and USAID Acting Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia, Craig Hart.

The visit to the Solomon Islands was the final leg of a broader trip across the Pacific, which included stops in Hawaii, where the delegation met with senior officials from Australia, Japan, and New Zealand; as well as Fiji, where they met with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

The US has had concerns about China’s rise in the region for months: in January this year, for instance, Campbell told a panel that the South Pacific was the place where he most expected to see some kind of “strategic surprise” whether it be in the form of a base or a security agreement.

But the trip comes amid some concerns in Washington that the US has been distracted on other global challenges – namely Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine – that it has outsourced regional policy in the Pacific to Australia.

However, Australia’s approach has also come under fire for being too slow, despite knowing for months that a threat was imminent.

The failure to act fast enough now puts national and regional security at the heart of the Australia’s federal election campaign, with Labor leader Anthony Albanese describing it “one of the greatest policy failures that we’ve seen from this government”.

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