By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
While the U.S. is distracted by the Russia-Ukraine crisis, China has made headway in the Pacific island region, announcing that it has set the seal on its security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Alarmed by the deal signing, the White House announced on Tuesday that a U.S. delegation led by Daniel Kritenbrink , assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Kurt Campbell, coordinator of the National Security Council Indo-Pacific, are headed to the Solomon Islands this week, hoping to stop the deal.
"We’ve communicated with our allies and partners in the region, including, of course, with Australia and New Zealand, which have expressed concerns about how this agreement may threaten the current regional security paradigm," said Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department.
Beijing on Tuesday said it has inked the agreement but the Solomons has yet to publicly confirm China's announcement.
Kyodo News reported that Douglas Ete, chairman of the Solomons Parliament's public accounts committee, told fellow lawmakers that Chinese officials would arrive in mid-May to sign cooperation pacts.
"We understand that the Solomon Islands and (China) are discussing a broad security-related agreement building on recently signed police cooperation. Despite the Solomon Islands government’s comments, the broad nature of the security agreement leaves open the door for the deployment of Chinese military forces to the Solomon Islands," said Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare earlier told the Parliament that the security agreement would not include a Chinese military base.
"We believe that signing such an agreement could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and will set a concerning precedent for the wider Pacific island region," Price said.
Price noted that U.S. partners such as Australia and New Zealand have had longstanding law enforcement and security ties with the Solomon Islands.
"At the request of Prime Minister Sogavare, an Australia-led multinational peacekeeping force from Fiji, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea effectively restored calm to Honiara following the outbreak of violence and rioting in November of last year," he said. "This multinational group quickly aided Solomon Islands and effectively supported a rapid return to peace."
Kritenbrink and Campbell's trip to the region is a follow-up to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit earlier this year to beef up Washington's ties with Pacific island nations. This week's itinerary, besides the Solomon Islands, also includes Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
"These are three important Pacific partners of the United States – Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. It’s precisely why the secretary met with the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this year when we were in the region," Price said.
The interagency delegation will also hold consultations with regional partners at the headquarters of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii.
"Building on Secretary Blinken’s February 2022 visit to the region, the delegation will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific as we work together to tackle the most significant global challenges of the 21st century, including combating the climate crisis and ending the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic," Price said.
"Part of our engagement, including in this upcoming context, is to ensure that our partners in the Indo-Pacific and around the world understand what the United States brings to the table, understand what partnership can bring. And we’ll leave it to them to contrast what we offer from what other countries, including rather large countries in the region, might offer," he added.