The year 2023 has witnessed increased US engagement in the Pacific region particularly in the West and the South Pacific. On the strategic front, the US announced establishment of four new military bases in Philippines, on February 2, 2023. On the diplomatic front, the US reopened its embassy with Chargé d’Affaires ad interim, on February 1, 2023, in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, after 30 years of absence, re-establishing its diplomatic presence in the island state. The US announced similar plans of opening two more embassies in Tonga and Kiribati during the 2022 Pacific Island Summit held in Fiji, and on March 31, 2023, the US State Department also announced opening an embassy in Vanuatu. These developments reflect a change in the US’s diplomatic priorities to increase its engagement with its Pacific neighbours, especially as China expands its outreach in this region.
The paper seeks to trace the diplomatic return of the US to the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), particularly the Solomon Islands, in light of the ongoing contestation between the US and China. It will also look at the implications of this competition for the stability of the region.
Tracing the US–Solomon Islands Relations
Despite their small geographical area, the PICs like Solomon Islands in Melanesia are of strategic importance. The Solomon Islands serve as a crucial transit point for cargo shipping and marine navigation throughout the South Pacific. The island nation is vital to the US interests in the region as China continues to expand its economic and strategic influence across the PICs. The US has been concerned that China could possibly try to establish a military facility on the island country. This could create challenges for the American security interests in the region as the Solomon Islands are in close proximity to Australia, a key US ally, and US territories in the Pacific – Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The geopolitical importance of this region can be traced back to the Guadalcanal campaign of 1942 when the Solomon Islands became a battleground in the Second World War. The US officials often cite US Guadalcanal Memorial located at Honiara as the symbol of historical ties between the US and the Solomon Islands.[i]
Map: Location of Solomon Islands
In 1978, the US formally recognised the Solomon Islands after the latter’s independence from British sovereignty and officially established its Embassy at Honiara in 1988. However, in 1993, the Clinton administration’s deficit reduction plan led to the closure of the Embassy at the Solomon Islands along with 22 others as part of its larger global reduction in diplomatic missions, after the end of the Cold War.[ii] The US embassy in Papua New Guinea took charge of handling diplomatic representation for the US in the region.[iii] The US has historically been engaged with the Micronesian countries, whereas its allies Australia and New Zealand have focused on Melanesia and Polynesia, respectively. Due to lack of diplomatic presence, a gap in the US–Solomon Islands ties emerged as seen in the issue of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the Second World War on the island country.[iv] These unexploded war-time bombshells and corroded warships, which were left behind 80 years ago, have accumulated on the land and in the sea, posing serious environmental and human security concern for the Solomon Islanders. This unresolved issue between Washington and Honiara has strained their bilateral relations.[v] The dip in relations coincided with China’s overture to the region through economic diplomacy.
China has been expanding its presence in the economically and strategically important PICs since the announcement of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the establishment of China Pacific Islands Economic Development & Cooperation Forum (EDCF) in 2006. Maintaining strong relations with the island country and other PICs is part of Beijing's maritime expansion and in advancing its BRI. Through the Solomon Islands with their large EEZ and prime location on critical shipping routes, China could potentially control maritime resources and trade in the region. The Solomon Islands is predominantly a rural developing country with large infrastructure and capacity building requirements. Beijing has invested in Honiara with an aim to bridge the latter’s infrastructure needs while furthering its own national interests in the region. China's Pacific expansion is primarily intended to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and limit Western influence over the PICs. Through its economic aid, China has been able to get diplomatic recognition from 10 of the 14 PICs. Since the diplomatic recognition of China in 2019, the graph of development assistance by Beijing to the Solomon Islands has increased and is more than Taipei’s aid, as shown in the figure below.
Figure: Financial aid by Taiwan and China to the Solomon Islands
The signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands in April 2022 was a major setback for the US and its key ally Australia, given the existing tensions in their relations with China. Australia has close relations with the Solomon Islands and continues to be the top aid provider to the island state with total official development assistance of US$144.8 million in 2021–2022.[vi] This underscored the legacy of Australia’s 14 years of RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands), from 2003 to 2017,[vii] when Chinese aid was minimal. PM Anthony Albanese, during his term as the leader of the Australian Labor Party, termed the China–Solomon Islands agreement as a “massive foreign policy failure” of the Morrison government.[viii] However, it can also be said that the agreement has become a catalyst for a renewed US’ Pacific policy.
China’s approach has been to provide assistance, aid and investments without any conditions to the Solomon Islands’ government. Nonetheless, there are concerns within the opposition and civil society regarding China’s growing influence in the island state. The Solomon Islands’ denial of scheduled port visit by a US Coast Guard vessel in August 2022[ix] and the recent political unrest due to removal of pro-Taiwan leader further adds to the internal divisions as well as uncertainty in the region. PM Manasseh Sogavare whose term is due to expire in May 2023 got a legislation passed by the Parliament in September 2022 to delay the country’s next general election until 2024 stating that the Solomon Islands cannot afford to hold Pacific Games and a parliamentary election in the same year.[x] These events highlight how China has been able to bring the political interests of Honiara closer to Beijing’s interests.
Another challenge for the US has been in the telecom sector. The expansion of Chinese Information and Communication Technology infrastructure in the South Pacific has created cyber security concerns for the US and its allies. In August 2022, with the funding of US$66 million from EXIM Bank of China, the Solomon Islands National Broadband Infrastructure Project (SINBIP) signed an agreement with China Harbour Engineering Company Limited for the construction of 161 Huawei towers making it the first large-scale financing from Beijing that the island country has ever received.[xi] Australia and other Pacific allies of US have expressed concern over Huawei's incorporation into the local telecommunications infrastructure of the Solomon Islands. However, the Sogavare government has called this deal a "historical financial partnership".
Renewed American Interests
In a reaction to the increased Chinese engagement, traditional players have enhanced their cooperation with the regional countries. To strengthen linkages with the Pacific neighbours, the US has undertaken high-level visits to the Solomon Islands, such as US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit in 2022 and the recent visits by US official Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific Coordinator of National Security Council in March 2023. Also, US allies are engaging more with the Solomon Islands. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited in the island country in 2022, and the recent visit of Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, which was the first ever visit by a Japanese Foreign Minister to the Solomon Islands.
A US$23 million Threshold Program by the US foreign aid agency Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was approved by Washington in December 2020 to help the Honiara government enhance its forestry sector’s management of natural resources.[xii] In April 2022, the US assured to accelerate the removal of unexploded ordnance.[xiii] At the first US–Pacific Island Country Summit held on September 29, 2022, in Washington, President Biden announced the first Pacific partnership strategy for prioritising US engagement with the PICs within the larger framework of the US Indo-Pacific strategy released in February 2022.[xiv] The document states that “pressure and economic coercion by the People’s Republic of China”[xv] resulting from the geopolitical jostling impacts the island countries as well as the US by undermining the peace and stability of the region.
Nonetheless, Sogavare’s Government on its part continues to balance the US and its allies and China. It has expressed its willingness to accept Chinese investment in infrastructure development projects such as the recent Port reconstruction project which is part of a US$170 million Asian Development Bank-funded infrastructure project.[xvi] On the other hand, the government of the Solomon Islands is also exploring avenues to deepen diplomatic and economic ties with the US and its allies.
Forging a strong diplomatic and strategic presence in the PICs and checking the growing Chinese influence is part of the US policy towards the Pacific neighbours. Current US engagement with the Solomon Islands could be strengthened by gaining the trust of the island country by addressing its economic, security and environmental concerns through collaborations and increased funding. For instance, prioritising resolving the environmental issue of the Second World War unexploded ordnance littering the coasts of the island. With the recent US–Pacific Island Country Summit and through the announcement of opening three more embassies in Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu, the US would like to present itself as a reliable partner in the Pacific region. While these efforts have been appreciated, it will continue to be challenging to alter the course of China–Solomon Islands relations and China’s engagement with the regional countries. The US needs a renewed approach to address the needs of the Pacific states and establish a credible presence in order to provide an alternative for Chinese aid and presence. It needs to enter into partnerships with third countries in the region and beyond, and not just its allies, to raise its profile and credibility among the PICs whose bargaining power is on the rise in the face of US-China confrontation and given their nature as large ocean States that sit on critical sea lanes of communication.
*Tarveen Kaur, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Brian Harding & Camilla Pohle-Anderson, Solomon Islands: WWII legacy unresolved 80 years after Guadalcanal campaign, 4 August 2022, United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/solomon-islands-wwii-legacy-unresolved-80-years-after-guadalcanal-campaign (Accessed on 8 February 2023)
[ii] Thomas W. Lippman, U.S. diplomacy's presence shrinking, 3 June 1996, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1996/06/03/us-diplomacys-presence-shrinking/4d1d817e-a748-457d-9b22-1971bb1cb934/ (Accessed on 12 February 2023)
[iii] A guide to the United States’ history of recognition, diplomatic, and consular relations, by country, since 1776: The Solomon Islands, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/countries/solomon-islands https://history.state.gov/countries/solomon-islands (Accessed on 10 February 2023)
[iv]Brian Harding & Camilla Pohle-Anderson, Solomon Islands: WWII legacy unresolved 80 years after Guadalcanal campaign, 4 August 2022, United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/solomon-islands-wwii-legacy-unresolved-80-years-after-guadalcanal-campaign (Accessed on 8 February 2023)
[vi] Australia’s development partnership with Solomon Islands, https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/solomon-islands/development-assistance/development-assistance-in-solomon-islands (Accessed on 20 March 2023)
[vii] Solomon Islands country brief, https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/solomon-islands/solomon-islands-country-brief (Accessed on 14 March 2023)
[viii] Miriah Davis, 'Massive foreign policy failure': Anthony Albanese slams Scott Morrison over Solomon Islands' security pact with China, 20 April 2022, https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/massive-foreign-policy-failure-anthony-albanese-slams-scott-morrison-over-solomon-islands-security-pact-with-china/news-story/7ac069a35d8b6c88eae96d730058673e (Accessed on 15 March 2023)
[ix] Benjamin Felton, Solomon Islands blocks all naval port visits after U.S. Coast Guard cutter denied entry, 30 August 2022, https://news.usni.org/2022/08/30/solomon-islands-blocks-all-naval-port-visits-after-u-s-coast-guard-cutter-denied-entry (Accessed on 25 March 2023)
[x] Kirsty Needham, Solomon Islands votes to delay election despite opposition, 8 September 2022,
[xi] Solomon Islands secures $66 mn Chinese loan for Huawei deal, 19 August 2022,
deal/93656652 (Accessed on 6 March 2023)
[xii] U.S. relations with the Solomon Islands, 21 May 2021, United States Department of State, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-solomon-islands/ (Accessed on 16 March 2023)
[xiii] Brian Harding & Camilla Pohle-Anderson, Solomon Islands: WWII legacy unresolved 80 years after Guadalcanal campaign, 4 August 2022, United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/solomon-islands-wwii-legacy-unresolved-80-years-after-guadalcanal-campaign (Accessed on 8 February 2023)
[xiv] Remarks by President Biden at the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, 29 September 2022, The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/09/29/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-u-s-pacific-island-country-summit/ (Accessed on 3 March 2023)
[xvi]Daniel Hurst, Chinese state company wins contract to redevelop Solomon Islands port, prompting cautious response, 22 March 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/22/chinese-state-company-wins-contract-to-redevelop-solomon-islands-honiara (Accessed on 26 March 2023)