Global attention may be fixed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the world cannot afford to ignore problems elsewhere. China’s new security pact with the tiny Solomon Islands is one such example. It also shows that the West will need to step up its diplomatic game if it wants to prevent further expansion of Chinese power.
You may never have heard of the Solomon Islands, but foreign policy and defense experts sure have. The nation was the site of the crucial battle of Guadalcanal in World War II, where the United States started to roll back Japanese conquests. The archipelago was important then because Japanese forces stationed there could threaten Allied positions in the southwestern Pacific and New Guinea, disrupting Australia’s supply routes from the United States. It is a mere 1,100 miles from Australian air and naval bases in Cairns, Queensland, which means Chinese forces based on the islands could threaten our ally as well as the sea lanes to the north and east, potentially disrupting U.S. efforts to come to Taiwan’s aid if China were to invade.
This is only the most recent development in China’s long-standing attempt to gain influence in small, strategically located Pacific island nations. Australia’s Lowy Institute reports that Beijing has spent about $170 million in aid to Pacific nations such as Kiribati, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. This has earned China much good will and tangible benefits such as Kiribati’s decision to open its waters to Chinese fishermen — a move Western analysts say will enable China to penetrate the area militarily.
Vanuatu, another island nation, denies it will permit China to establish a naval base there, but a Chinese-funded port expansion project could allow for a civilian facility that could be quickly converted to military use in the future. China’s close ties to Fiji even spurred Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit the tiny nation in February to pull it back to the Western camp.
Reversing these Chinese gains is important for U.S. strategy in the Pacific. Chinese bases in the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji would effectively control access to northeastern Australia, forcing that nation to deploy its military assets to combat that threat rather than contribute to broader allied actions elsewhere in the Pacific. Kiribati is only about 1,350 miles south of the U.S. Pacific naval base in Pearl Harbor. Even a marginal Chinese military presence in Kiribati would force U.S. military planners to allocate scarce resources to defend against any threat, further weakening our ability to protect Taiwan, South Korea or Japan in the event of war.
The Biden administration is well aware of these challenges, but it could use bipartisan congressional support for its initiatives in the Pacific. It’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to compete with China, and Republicans should be fully on board with financing this project. It’s a lot cheaper to keep a nation out of China’s orbit than it is to build the military forces to work around it.
Both parties will have to overlook the fact that some of that money will go toward potentially unsavory regimes. Tonga, for example, is a constitutional monarchy where the king remains politically powerful and nobles hold nine of the legislature’s 26 seats. Fiji has had two coup d’etats and a constitutional crisis since 2000. Six of these crucial nations still criminalize same-sex relations. None of that is pretty, but China will surely overlook a country’s commitment to democracy or modern conceptions of human rights. Letting our preferences get in the way of our interests is a surefire way to lose global influence and increase the risk to national security.
Like it or not, the unipolar world that the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in is over. Our adversaries can fight back, and they are increasingly using every means at their disposal to push back against American influence. Lose too many places such as the Solomon Islands, and the threat from China will start to get uncomfortably close to home. Better to spend big and push outward now rather than to be boxed into a corner later.