The US should keep a cool head over China’s courting of the Solomon Islands

Associated Press/Mark Schiefelbein
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. The two governments signed a security agreement in April 2022.

During World War II, the Solomon Islands were the site of some of the most brutal fighting in the whole Pacific War. For seven months in 1942-43, the Americans and Japanese slugged it out on the island of Guadalcanal. Many strategists regard this as a pivotal battle in the Pacific, much like the famous Battle of Midway.

Today, these islands have emerged once more as part of a geopolitical struggle — this time between the U.S. and Australia, on the one hand, and China on the other. Beijing has signed a “security cooperation agreement” with the Solomon Islands, and this has ignited quite a furor in Washington and Canberra.

The U.S. and Australia have been working to contain the growth of China’s influence across the Asia-Pacific. Last fall, the two countries decided to link with Britain to create the AUKUS partnership, which will share defense technologies, especially for building and operating nuclear submarines. Australia and the U.S. also have teamed up with India and Japan — the “Quad” framework — which is also designed to serve as a check on China.

Diplomats from Canberra and Washington have been piling into Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, lest the island group dare to increase its active flirtation with China. They are evidently worried that the Solomons could form a critical military outpost for China. Just as Japan once sought to use the island group to break the lines of communications connecting the U.S. and Australia, so the logic goes, China’s military could try the same strategic maneuver. 

Unfortunately, such geopolitical machination represents an outdated, even paranoid, reaction to China’s growing influence in the Pacific. Putting aside the paradox that Washington officials have forcefully advocated regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine — that sovereign countries have every right to make their own foreign policy decisions — the reactions by Canberra and Washington run the risk of making the already fraught geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific even worse.

As it turns out, Beijing has myriad legitimate interests in the wider Pacific area. To state the obvious, China is a trading, shipping and fishing powerhouse that logically seeks out new markets and resources, especially in relatively proximate areas. Even more obviously, Beijing aims to protect its nationals, who could be in danger. Indeed, rioting in Honiara during November 2021 left the nascent “Chinatown” in the city burned to ashes. That unfortunate set of events, more than any other, likely prompted Beijing and Honiara to consider stepping up security cooperation. Moreover, China has engaged in some humanitarian efforts in the wider Pacific area, including recently dispatching aid to the island of Tonga after a volcanic eruption.

Canberra’s rather hysterical reaction to the news of a possible agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, does regrettably seem to fit a pattern. Over the past decade, Australians have torched their previously good relationship with China over relatively minor issues such as Beijing’s restrictions on wine imports or attempts to ferret out alleged Chinese conspiracies in Australian politics. 

Nor is it clear why China’s moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of the reef bases, are considered a grave threat to Australia. China most likely has no intention of invading Australia, which lies thousands of miles to its south. Indeed, Australia is also 1,000 miles distant from the Solomon Islands, which again prompts the question of how even a notional Chinese base there could genuinely threaten the continent Down Under. The government of the Solomons has pledged there would be no Chinese military base, including at a meeting with a high-level visiting U.S. delegation on April 22.

At a time of great geopolitical tumult, the U.S. needs to stay focused on what really matters. The Solomons are hardly a major “prize” in the present day. Indeed, in the era of long-range precision strike, it is not clear that any particular island base is of great value. For American security, it is the North Pacific and the alliance with Japan that remain the cornerstone of a favorable balance of power. The South Pacific is of considerably less importance to U.S. national security, and Australia is more than capable of protecting itself from the minimal threats that it might conjure to its security.   

A clear lesson of the sad events in Eastern Europe would appear to be that geopolitical brinkmanship eventually can escalate out of control, resulting in tragedy. Strategists in the Pacific should be considering ways to develop a balanced, inclusive regional security architecture rather than pouring gasoline on a local brushfire in an incredibly complex and diverse region.

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein.

Tags AUKUS Australia China China aggression Solomon Islands

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