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US Counters Chinese Outreach to Solomon Islands

FILE - Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 9, 2019.
FILE - Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 9, 2019.

The United States is increasing its diplomatic outreach and COVID-19 vaccine assistance to the Solomon Islands amid concerns over a security deal between the Pacific island nation and China.

This week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele about plans to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Honiara and what U.S. officials described as “joint efforts to broaden and deepen engagement” between the two countries.

The U.S. is also donating additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the South Pacific nation. The Solomon Islands has received 52,650 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in recent days, after 100,620 doses were delivered in November.

The U.S. currently maintains a consulate in Honiara after closing its embassy in 1993. The plan to re-open a U.S. Embassy in the Solomon Islands’ capital was first announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Pacific trip in February.

Sherman’s latest diplomatic push follows reports that the Solomon Islands and China have reached a deal that could allow the deployment of Chinese forces in the event of a domestic disturbance.

According to a leaked draft, China could send armed police and military forces if requested by the government of the Solomon Islands. China could also be allowed to base its navy ships off the coast of the Pacific island nation.

In early April, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said his country would not invite China to establish a military base. China also denied it seeks a military foothold there.

“Despite the Solomon Islands government’s comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of PRC military forces to the Solomon Islands,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“We believe signing such an agreement could increase destabilization within Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific Island region,” the spokesperson added.

Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, flew to the Solomon Islands for talks with Sogavare earlier this week.

“We have asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement and to consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks,” said Seselja in a statement.

Australia already has a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Australian police peacekeepers have been in Honiara since riots in November.

Experts said the pact between Beijing and Honiara has set off alarm bells in and beyond the Solomon Islands.

Charles Edel, who is Australia chair and senior adviser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA the concern with the Solomons-China agreement is that “it could undermine the Solomon Islands' sovereignty, increase corruption within its political system, divide the Pacific island community, lead to environmental destruction and resource exploitation, and even potentially open the door for an authoritarian regime to set up a military base able to project power in and restrict access to the region.”

Edel warned China would continue to pursue similar arrangements in the Asia-Pacific until the U.S. and its allies become more proactive and regain a sense of urgency in the region.

In Beijing, Chinese officials said security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands “does not target any third party.”

During a Wednesday briefing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged other nations to refrain from “stoking confrontation and creating division” and to “respect the sovereignty and independent choice of China and Solomon Islands.”

In a visit to Australia, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General David Berger, warned that the Chinese security offering to the Solomons sounds "too good to be true" and may come with strings attached, according to a report in The Guardian newspaper.

Some information for this report came from AP and Reuters.