US issues vague warning 'to respond' if China builds military base in Solomons
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The United States would “respond” if China takes steps to establish a permanent military presence in the Solomon Islands, a U.S. official said, noting the “potential regional security implications” of a newly signed pact between the two countries.
“We outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose and scope of the agreement,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at a press briefing Tuesday following his trip to Honiara, where he led a U.S. delegation last week.
U.S. officials met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and his cabinet following separate announcements by China and the Solomon Islands that the controversial Security Cooperation Agreement has been signed.
“We outlined that of course we have respect for the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns and we would very naturally respond to those concerns,” Kritenbrink said.
However, the State Department official did not provide a clear answer when asked to explain how exactly the U.S. would respond.
“I’m not going to speculate on what that may or may not involve, but I think our goal was to be very clear in that regard,” Kritenbrink said. “I’m not in a position to talk about what the United States may or may not do in such a situation.”
Despite Sogavare’s repeated assurance that the pact was intended only for domestic implementation, Kritenbrink said the U.S. is worried about the "potential regional security implications of the agreement, not just for ourselves, but for allies and partners across the region.”
Kritenbrink said what troubled the U.S. was “the complete lack of transparency” behind the pact.
“What precisely are the motivations behind the agreement? What exactly are China’s objectives and the like? I think they’re completely unclear because this agreement has not been scrutinized or reviewed or subject to any kind of consultation or approval process by anyone else,” Kritenbrink said.
He linked the Solomons-China agreement to Beijing’s relentless bid to expand the People’s Liberation Army’s footprint in the region.
“I think it’s important in this context to keep in mind that we do know that (China) is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure that would allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances,” Kritenbrink said.
He added that the U.S. “would follow developments closely in consultation with regional partners.”
Kritenbrink was accompanied by Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator for the National Security Council; Lt. Gen. Steve Sklenka,deputy commander of the Indo-Pacific Command; and Craig Hart, USAID’s acting senior deputy assistant administrator for Asia.
During the visit, the U.S. delegation announced Washington’s intention to expedite the process of opening a U.S. embassy in Honiara, strengthen the ties between the U.S. and the Solomon Islands.
“Our purpose in going to the Solomons was to explain to our friends there our approach to the region and the steps we’re taking to step up our engagement across the Pacific Islands, the specific programs and activities that are ongoing in the Solomons and that we expect to expand and accelerate in the months ahead,” Kritenbrink said.
“We reiterated our commitment to enhancing our partnership with the Solomon Islands, including expediting the opening of the U.S. embassy there, advancing cooperation on addressing unexploded ordnance, and increasing maritime domain awareness, as well as expanding cooperation on climate change, health, people-to-people ties, and other issues as well,” he added.