US opens embassy in Solomon Islands to counter China

In this photo provided by the U.S. Embassy Honiara, Taylor Ruggles, director for the East Asia and the Pacific region of the U.S. State Department, from left, Colin Beck, permanent secretary of the Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, and Russell Comeau, ChargĂ© d’Affaires ad interim of the U.S. Embassy Honiara, attend an flag raising ceremony to celebrate the opening of the embassy in Honiara of the Solomon Islands, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (U.S. Embassy Honiara via AP)

BY NICK PERRY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The United States opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands on Thursday in its latest move to counter China’s push into the Pacific.

The embassy in the capital, Honiara, is starting small, with a chargĂ© d’affaires, a couple of State Department staff and a handful of local employees. The U.S. previously operated an embassy in the Solomon Islands for five years before closing it in 1993 as part of a global reduction in diplomatic posts after the end of the Cold War.

But China’s bold moves in the region have the U.S. seeking to increase its engagement in a number of ways, such as by donating COVID-19 vaccines, bringing back Peace Corps volunteers to several island nations, and investing in forestry and tourism projects.

“The opening of the embassy builds on our efforts not only to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region, but also to engage further with our Pacific neighbors, connect United States programs and resources with needs on the ground, and build people-to-people ties,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.

The opening comes as Fiji’s new leader, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, appears to be reassessing some aspects of his nation’s engagement with China. Rabuka told The Fiji Times last week he planned to end a police training and exchange agreement with China.

The U.S. State Department notified lawmakers early last year that China’s growing influence in the region made reopening the Solomon Islands embassy a priority. Since then, the Solomons has signed a security pact with China, raising fears of a military buildup in the region, and the U.S. has countered by sending several high-level delegations.

The Solomon Islands switched allegiance from the self-ruled island of Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, threatening the close ties with the U.S. that date to World War II.

“We are seeing this bond weaken as the People’s Republic of China aggressively seeks to engage Solomon Islands’ political and business elites, utilizing a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous debt levels,” the department said in a December notice to Congress that was obtained by The Associated Press.

A senior State Department official who insisted on anonymity to brief the media said the U.S. had been encouraged by the Solomon Islands’ commitment to continue working with traditional security partners such as Australia and the U.S., but remained concerned about the secrecy surrounding the security agreement with China.

He said any type of militarization in the Pacific by China would be a great concern.

The official said the U.S. had yet to have deep conversations with the new Fijian leadership so it was too early to tell if the move on policing signaled a change in direction for Fiji on China.

The Fijian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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