China Scores a Victory In the New Battle of the South Pacific

My first command as a US Navy captain was leading a squadron of warships in the western Pacific in the late 1990s. It included a flagship cruiser, the Valley Forge, a Spruance-class destroyer, two frigates (one Canadian) and three brand-new Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.

Destroyer Squadron 21 had been formed in 1943 and nicknamed “The Rampant Lions” (as commodore, I was jocularly called the “Lion King”). It had a strong combat record, and was honored with the motto “Solomons Onward,” recognizing the desperate fighting near Guadalcanal in the British protectorate of the Solomon Islands in World War II. I often reflected on the deep lineage of my command — grounded in the longtime relationship between the US Navy and the islands of the southwestern Pacific.

I was therefore surprised and disappointed when the government of the Solomon Islands announced this month a security pact with China, which could potentially provide immense strategic benefit to Beijing. The top US official focused on the Pacific, Kurt Campbell of the National Security Council, visited the island’s capital of Honiara this week and met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, but it may be too late to derail the agreement.

America’s leading allies in the South Pacific — Australia and New Zealand — are equally concerned. The details of the security arrangement are murky, but a draft circulating online indicates China will be able to send military forces to the Solomons for training and operations, and conduct routine port visits.

Coming on top of China’s gradual encroachments in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the Solomons agreement is seen by the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific command as a direct threat to the security of the US and its allies in the region. It would give China a forward military location roughly 1,200 miles from northern Australia.

Just as the US fought the Japanese empire to protect the sea lanes of communication to Australia in the early days of World War II, Chinese naval operations from the Solomons could threaten US supply lines in any conflict with Beijing.

In response, the Chinese have been quick to point to the powerful constellation of American military bases throughout the Pacific, as well as the growing influence of Quad, a loose alignment between Australia, Japan, India and the US that is focused on balancing a rising China throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Following the meeting with Campbell, Solomon Islands officials assured the US that there would be no permanent Chinese military base, nor would offensive military operations be permitted. But the unease in Washington continues, and there is controversy in Australia as the government debates who “lost” the Solomons.

Several warning signs were missed. In 2019, the Solomons reversed decades of diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognized Beijing. Last fall, riots in the capital killed four people and precipitated an Australian peacekeeping mission. The leader of the Solomons’ opposition party says he warned the Australians of the pending Chinese deal months ago. But there was no coordinated response among the US and its Pacific allies.

Now they are playing catch-up. In addition to sending the high-level delegation, the US has committed to reopening its embassy, which was shuttered in 1993. (Diplomacy has since been handled out of the embassy in nearby Papua New Guinea). But there are additional ways for Washington to put more effort into the relationship with the Solomons.

Militarily, the US Indo-Pacific command should team with regional partners (particularly Australia) in conducting security training with Solomons’ forces. One step would be sending a US Coast Guard cutter for law-enforcement and fisheries training (ships from China, Vietnam and elsewhere have been harvesting seafood illegally in the area for years). We should also structure a reasonable package of economic and trade incentives.

Washington could encourage Australia to revise its offshore refugee policies that have generated backlash in the region. A visit by the huge US hospital ship Mercy, too, might be a good signal to a population lacking quality medical care.

At the heart of the problem is a sense that the US and Australia simply relied on history to keep the Solomon Islands close. China, using its Belt and Road initiative, played a better hand, and will look to use its economic might to win over additional small Pacific nations.

As I have written before, the US and China are competing in a marketplace of ideas, and Washington must recognize the need to compete to win friends — especially in geopolitically critical but largely forgotten locations like the South Pacific.

The historical relationships between the US, Australia and the Solomon Islands are real but insufficient. Great-power rivalry with China demands that the US tend the garden of allies, partners and friends or risk alienating them — not only in the southwestern Pacific, but in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. “Losing” the Solomon Islands is a cautionary tale.

Bloomberg



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