Why a tiny Pacific nation’s China deal is getting global attention

NEW ZEALAND’S CHRISTCHURCH — Western nations are scrambling after a tiny island chain in the South Pacific agreed to a security deal with China that the US and its allies fear would strengthen Beijing’s military capabilities in this strategically crucial region.

The agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, a country of 700,000 people that experienced fatal riots last year, poses “severe risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to officials from the United States, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

The level of concern in Washington and other capitals is so great that the United States sent its highest-level delegation to the Solomon Islands in years on Friday. In Honiara, the capital, Kurt Campbell, the White House’s senior Asia official, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Campbell had planned to warn Sogavare about the contract, the terms of which have not been made public, but his visit was cut short when Beijing and Honiara declared they had already signed it days before he arrived. According to a draught that was posted online in March, the agreement permits China to send police and armed forces to the Solomon Islands “to assist in preserving social order,” as well as Chinese warships to make port calls there.

According to a White House statement, Sogavare informed the US delegation that the arrangement would offer China no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capacity. The deal, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, is about sustaining peace in the Solomon Islands and is “not directed at any third party.”

“Normal law enforcement and security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands, two sovereign and independent countries, is consistent with international law and customary international practise,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin during a press conference last month.

Sogavare has brought the Solomon Islands closer to China, handing Beijing a huge victory in 2019 when it cut long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Unease about China’s influence in the country’s affairs, as well as allegations of Beijing-linked corruption, fueled violent riots in November that killed four people in the capital’s Chinatown. Under its own security pact with the country, Australia dispatched peacekeeping personnel.

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