WELLINGTON, New Zealand
The United States has said it will open an embassy in the Solomon Islands, outlining in unusually blunt terms a plan to increase its influence in the South Pacific nation before China becomes “strongly integrated”.
The reasoning was explained in a State Department notification to Congress obtained by The Associated Press.
The plan was confirmed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a visit to Fiji on Saturday, as part of a Pacific tour that kicked off in Australia.
Blinken then landed in Hawaii, where he will host the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea to discuss the threat posed by North Korea, amid growing concerns over its recent missile tests.
The State Department says the Solomon Islands cherishes its history with Americans on World War II battlefields, but the United States risks losing preferential ties as China ‘aggressively seeks to engage’ elite politicians and businessmen in the Solomon Islands.
The move comes after riots rocked the nation of 700,000 in November. The riots grew out of a peaceful protest and highlighted long-running regional rivalries, economic issues and concerns over the country’s growing ties with China, after switching allegiance from the self-governing island of Taiwan in Beijing three years ago. Rioters burned down buildings and looted shops.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote the following month, telling lawmakers in a fiery 90-minute speech that he had done nothing wrong and would not bow to “forces of evil” or “agents of Taiwan.” ”
The United States previously operated an embassy in the Solomons for five years before closing it in 1993. Since then, American diplomats from neighboring Papua New Guinea have been accredited to the Solomons, which has a US consular agency.
The embassy announcement is part of a new Biden administration strategy for the Indo-Pacific that was announced on Friday and emphasizes building partnerships with allies in the region as a way to counter China’s growing influence and ambitions.
In its notification to Congress, the State Department said China had “used a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, expensive infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous levels of debt” in its dealings with political leaders. and Traders of the Solomon Islands.
“The United States has a strategic interest in strengthening our political, economic, and commercial relationship with the Solomon Islands, the largest Pacific island nation without a U.S. Embassy,” the State Department wrote.
The State Department said it does not expect to build a new embassy anytime soon, but will lease space first at an initial cost of $12.4 million. The embassy would be located in the capital, Honiara, and would start small, with two American staff and about five local staff.
The State Department said the Peace Corps plans to reopen an office in the Solomon Islands and have its volunteers serve there, and that several US agencies are creating government positions with portfolios in the Solomon Islands.
“The Department must be part of this increased American presence, rather than remaining a distant player,” he writes.
During his visit to Fiji, Blinken met with acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and other Pacific leaders to discuss regional issues, particularly the existential risk posed by climate change. It was the first visit by a US Secretary of State to Fiji since 1985.
Sayed-Khaiyum said he welcomed renewed US engagement in the region and President Joe Biden’s decision last year to join the Paris accord. He said that in the past, Pacific island nations have sometimes felt overlooked by larger nations as “overflown” countries.
“Little dots spotted from executives’ airplane windows en route to meetings where they were talking about us instead of us, if they were talking about us at all,” he said.
Blinken and Pacific leaders also spoke about the coronavirus pandemic and disaster relief. But growing tensions in Ukraine loomed over the visit.
“We continue to see very, very worrying signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at Ukraine’s borders,” Blinken said.
Blinken traveled to Fiji from the Australian city of Melbourne, where he met his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan. The four nations form the “Quad”, a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies that was created to counter China’s regional influence.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.