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China and the U.S. Face Off Over the Solomon Islands

The island nation has caught the eye of Beijing, sending Washington scrambling.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The HMAS Armidale sails into the Port of Honiara in the Solomon Islands on Dec. 1, 2021.
The HMAS Armidale sails into the Port of Honiara in the Solomon Islands on Dec. 1, 2021.
The HMAS Armidale sails into the Port of Honiara in the Solomon Islands on Dec. 1, 2021. CPL Brodie Cross/Australian Department of Defence via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at great-power brinkmanship in the Solomon Islands, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.

After starting your day with the Morning Brief, wind it down each evening with The Slatest, Slate’s daily newsletter featuring the best of that day’s coverage of news, politics, the courts, and more. Sign up today.


The Solomons’ Pacific Play

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at great-power brinkmanship in the Solomon Islands, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.

After starting your day with the Morning Brief, wind it down each evening with The Slatest, Slate’s daily newsletter featuring the best of that day’s coverage of news, politics, the courts, and more. Sign up today.


The Solomons’ Pacific Play

The United States will dispatch high-level officials to the Solomon Islands this week as the White House attempts to stave off a rapid turn toward China. Kurt Campbell, U.S. President Joe Biden’s top Asia national security official, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will make the journey as part of a trip that includes stops in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Although the Solomons are far from the U.S. mainland, they sit in a key strategic chokepoint in the Pacific, just over 1,000 miles from Australia and 3,600 miles from Hawaii. A prospective deal between the islands and China has set off alarm bells among allies in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

The Solomons’ drift toward Beijing began in 2019, when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched the country’s allegiance from Taiwan to China. The move prompted Taipei to cut off aid to the islands’ most populous province and helped stir resentment against Sogavare that culminated in deadly riots in the country last year.

Those ties are about to go further, according to a leaked draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands that emerged in March. The potential deal would allow Chinese navy ships to use the Solomons’ ports for “logistical replenishment” and possibly for Beijing to send security forces, if called upon, “to assist in maintaining social order.”

Although replenishment deals are not unusual between countries with large navies, the prospect of a Chinese military base on the islands has caused the most concern. Solomon Islands leaders have denied that bases form part of the agreement.

Regardless of the still vague details, the situation is considered serious enough to send Washington heavyweights to the Pacific. “The security deal between Beijing and Honiara has Washington and Canberra spooked,” Greg Poling, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. “And so that explains why Kurt Campbell and Dan Kritenbrink are rushing out right now.”

Poling added that the hasty nature of the trip belies other, more long-term efforts to engage with Pacific island nations, dating back to the Trump administration. Biden’s team has renewed those engagements, with the recent appointment of Joseph Yun as the special presidential envoy for compact negotiations meant to keep the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau on Washington’s good side.

The visit comes as Western pressure builds for the Solomons to tear up the agreement. Zed Seselja, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, visited the islands last week, asking “respectfully” for Sogavare “to consider not signing the agreement.”

Campbell’s trip is also an indication that the United States isn’t content to let Quad partner Australia handle diplomacy in its backyard alone. Before the draft security agreement leaked, U.S. officials were already laying the groundwork to reopen the U.S. Embassy on the Solomon Islands, which had been closed since 1993, a move U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed himself on a visit to Fiji in February.

With the Solomons getting plenty of attention from global powers, will it encourage others in the region to play Beijing and Washington off each other? “I think that’s really hard to do. And I’m not really sure there’s anybody in the region who’s done it well,” Poling said, citing the tricky balancing acts of Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. “Playing both sides is just not as easy as it used to be. And this is really ripping the Solomons political environment apart in a way that I don’t think other Pacific island states are going to want to mimic.”

In the meantime, Washington is left playing catch-up, at a time when it’s not the only option in the region. “This is not the Cold War. The U.S. does not get to dictate which side of an Iron Curtain countries land on,” Poling said. “The idea that you’re going to box out now the world’s second-largest navy, soon to be the world largest navy, is just absurd.”

“So the question is, can we make sure that as China does develop a global navy with a global footprint, that countries signing access agreements are doing them in ways that don’t circumscribe their autonomy, that the strings attached aren’t so onerous that they damage the host country and ultimately damage the U.S.?”


What We’re Following Today

Russia’s eastern offensive. The focus of Russia’s war in Ukraine has returned to the eastern Donbas region as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Monday that a “significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated” on an offensive in Ukraine’s east. U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to host a call on Tuesday with Western allies to “discuss our continued support for Ukraine and efforts to hold Russia accountable.”

East Timor votes. East Timor’s incumbent president, Francisco Guterres, faces off against ex-President and Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta on Tuesday in the country’s presidential runoff vote. Ramos-Horta is tipped to win, having garnered 46.5 percent of votes in last month’s first-round contest. A Ramos-Horta victory will likely spell more political upheaval for the country, as he has hinted at using presidential powers to dissolve the parliament and hold early legislative elections.


Keep an Eye On

IMF outlook. The International Monetary Fund releases on Tuesday its biannual World Economic Outlook, with sluggish growth driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine set to drag down the world’s economies. The report is likely to echo predictions from the World Bank on Monday, which predicted global economic growth at 3.2 percent this year, down from a previous estimate of 4.1 percent.

Europe’s Russian gas habit. Leading German employers and unions joined on Monday to oppose a Russian gas embargo, arguing that it “would lead to loss of production, shutdowns, a further deindustrialization, and the long-term loss of work positions in Germany.” The announcement is likely to inform the thinking of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as European leaders debate further bans on Russian energy imports.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
The Israeli military shot down a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Monday and responded with airstrikes on Hamas positions in Gaza as tensions escalate following more clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City over the weekend, where 152 Palestinians were wounded in altercations with Israeli police inside the mosque compound. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said U.S. officials were engaged with Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab representatives in an attempt to calm the situation.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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