The US yesterday opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands in its latest move to counter China’s push into the Pacific.
The embassy in the capital, Honiara, is starting small, with a charge d’affaires, a couple of US Department of State staff and a handful of local employees.
The US had operated an embassy in the Solomon Islands for five years before closing it in 1993 as part of a global reduction in diplomatic posts after the end of the Cold War.
However, China’s bold moves in the region have the US seeking to increase its engagement in a number of ways, such as by donating COVID-19 vaccines, bringing back Peace Corps volunteers to several island nations, and investing in forestry and tourism projects.
“The opening of the embassy builds on our efforts not only to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region, but also to engage further with our Pacific neighbors, connect US programs and resources with needs on the ground, and build people-to-people ties,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.
The opening comes as Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka appears to be reassessing some aspects of his nation’s engagement with Beijing. Rabuka last week told the Fiji Times that he plans to end a police training and exchange agreement with China.
The state department notified Washington lawmakers early last year that China’s growing influence in the region made reopening the Solomon Islands embassy a priority.
Since then, the Solomons has signed a security pact with China, raising fears of a military buildup in the region, and the US has countered by sending several high-level delegations.
The Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, threatening close US ties that date to World War II.
“We are seeing this bond weaken as the People’s Republic of China aggressively seeks to engage Solomon Islands’ political and business elites, utilizing a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans and potentially dangerous debt levels,” the department wrote in a notice to US Congress in December that was obtained by The Associated Press.
Washington had been encouraged by the Solomon Islands’ commitment to continue working with traditional security partners such as Australia and the US, but remains concerned about the secrecy surrounding the security agreement with China, a senior state department official said on condition of anonymity.
He said any type of militarization in the Pacific by China would be a great concern.
The official said the US has not yet had deep conversations with the new Fijian leadership, so it is too early to know if the move on policing signaled a change in direction for Fiji on China.
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