US Indo-Pacific commander: China’s play for Solomon Islands woke up officials

Washington’s relations with Pacific island countries are 'back on track,' says Adm. John Aquilino.
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2023.03.17
Wellington, New Zealand
US Indo-Pacific commander: China’s play for Solomon Islands woke up officials Admiral John C. Aquilino (left), commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, speaks at an International Institute for Strategic Studies event in Singapore, March 16, 2023.
Credit: Caroline Chia/Reuters

The United States’ relations with Pacific island countries are back on track after officials got a wake-up call from China’s inroads with the Solomon Islands, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John Aquilino told an event in Singapore.

China’s ties with small island nations in the Pacific have burgeoned over several decades as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and establish its own institutions and diplomatic groupings to rival a post-World War II international order dominated by the West. Last year, Beijing forged a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the United States and its allies. 

“We’ve recently seen in the form of the Solomon Islands some actions by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to potentially grab a foothold. I think it woke a number of us up, to ensure we spend more time, engage with, provide assistance and support to Pacific islands,” Aquilino said Thursday after a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We’re back on track, I would say, and we continue to engage in ways that are meaningful and helpful for those nations,” he said in a report by BenarNews, an affiliate for Radio Free Asia. 

In his prepared remarks, the regional military chief denied that the United States was trying to contain China and he characterized relations between the two countries as robust competition. The United States and its allies want to ensure that the peaceful rules-based international order endures, Aquilino said.

Earlier this week, the leaders of the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom announced a deal for Canberra to buy nuclear-powered attack submarines from the U.S. from early next decade and to later build its own nuclear subs using British and American technology.  

The AUKUS security pact, first announced in September 2021, is widely understood to be aimed at deterring China from upending the military balance in East Asia and the Pacific. The Asian superpower has doubled its annual military spending over the past decade, though it still spends far less on its arsenal and armed forces than the United States.

Aquilino said Australia and New Zealand were central to recent efforts to improve U.S. relations with Pacific island countries.

“They’ve certainly have taken an increased leadership role. We coordinate our support,” Aquilino said.

American involvement in the Pacific diminished after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, with a reduction in embassies and U.S. development assistance through its Peace Corps agency.

Leaders of Pacific island nations say their top concern is the climate, and they don’t want to be forced to take sides in the Chinese-American rivalry or for their region to become increasingly militarized. 

In the Solomon Islands, it remains unclear if the United States can mend ties with the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. He has embraced Chinese assistance for his country, which struggles with a lack of roads and basic healthcare.

The Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.

After a three-decade absence, the United States last month upgraded the status of its consular services agency in the Solomon Islands to an embassy. It does not have a resident ambassador and is working on establishing a more substantial diplomatic presence.

Pro-U.S. politician Daniel Suidani, an outspoken critic of the Solomon Islands’ closer ties with China, was ousted as premier of Malaita, the Solomon Islands most populous province, in early February.

China, meanwhile, is bankrolling the 2023 Pacific Games, to be held in the Solomons’ capital Honiara in November, and also is building a new major hospital for the country.

BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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