Over the past few weeks, the world has been understandably transfixed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, though, his close ally Chinese President Xi Jinping has been quietly taking advantage of the West’s distraction by expanding China’s sphere of influence in the South Pacific. If Washington doesn’t wake up to this threat, China’s efforts to dominate the region will gain dangerous and perhaps irreversible momentum.
Officials and experts throughout Asia expressed shock last month when a leaked document emerged showing a draft of a “security cooperation” agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, a small former British colony in the South Pacific that has been independent since 1978. The draft agreement would enable Beijing to send armed police or military personnel, at the request of the Solomon Islands, for a variety of purposes, including to “assist in maintaining social order.” Marked confidential, the agreement would also expand the Chinese military’s ability to send ships and troops to protect Chinese people and projects on the islands.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Solomon Islands government, led by Beijing-friendly Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, you’re like most policymakers in Washington. But if you doubt the islands’ strategic significance, just look at the map. A Chinese military presence there would put People’s Liberation Army troops less than a five-hour flight from the eastern coast of Australia and far closer to U.S. territories than ever before.
China surely hasn’t forgotten the role played by the Solomon Islands in World War II, especially during the 1942-43 Battle of Guadalcanal.
“Ensuring that these islands, within striking distance of Australia and occupying critical strategic geography, remain free from Chinese coercion and military presence is a massive strategic imperative for the U.S. and Australia,” Alex Gray, director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security at the National Security Council during the Trump administration, told me.
Predictably, Beijing says that the agreement is no big deal and is “beyond reproach.” But the U.S. and Australian governments have been scrambling to try to stop its completion. Australian officials are engaged in frantic shuttle diplomacy with the Sogavare government. President Biden’s top NSC official for Asia, Kurt Campbell, will become the administration’s first senior official to visit the Solomon Islands next week, in a regional tour that will include several other stops.
It was Campbell who predicted in January that China would unveil a “strategic surprise” in the Pacific this year. Clearly, the U.S. and Australian governments had some indication that this was coming. Yet neither seems to have done much to try to prevent the Chinese move. Now, experts say, both governments are struggling to catch up to Beijing.
“Reversing momentum, rather than stopping it in the first place, is risky and expensive,” said former Australian national security official John Lee, now with the Hudson Institute. “The failure to do more to prevent the deal from even being contemplated means the U.S. and allies will need to spend more resources and regional political capital than they would like.”
Biden administration officials maintain that they are, in fact, heavily engaged in the Pacific Islands. Biden spoke to Pacific Island leaders in August, via Zoom. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Fiji in February. Last month, Biden appointed Ambassador Joseph Yun as a special envoy to work on completing negotiations to renew U.S. compacts with three other Pacific Island nations. State Department climate envoy John F. Kerry attended a conference in Palau this week.
A senior Biden administration official told me that covid restrictions hampered face-to-face diplomacy until recently, but the official assured me that the Biden team is determined to step up the United States’ game in this region. Nevertheless, details of exactly how the Biden administration plans to try to persuade Sogavare to turn away from China are scarce.
“This did not come as a surprise, and this is not the only place in the Pacific or globally where China is extraordinarily active,” the official said. “This is but a recent manifestation, and it’s probably one of the boldest.”
To be sure, the Solomon Islands is only one of many places in the Pacific Islands where China is expanding its influence. Beijing has persuaded two Pacific island countries to drop diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in recent years, including the Solomon Islands. China offers tempting packages of economic, diplomatic and military aid whilebribing any and all corrupt leaders in these countries. Rather than reacting case by case, the United States and allied governments need to come to the table with substantive, long-term offers of aid and investment to reassure these Pacific Island nations that they have another option besides betting their future on partnership with Beijing.
Russia is an urgent threat, but China is the more serious long-term competitor, only too happy to exploit our distraction. Xi has global ambitions, which means we must confront his aggression in many places at once. If the Pacific Islands become China’s outposts, the region and the world will be a much more dangerous place.
Opinion by Josh RoginJosh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.