The West has forgotten the islands of the Pacific.  China does not have

The West has forgotten the islands of the Pacific. China does not have

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It has been eight decades since the Battle of Guadalcanal was fought between Allied forces and the Imperial Japanese Army. Today, the Solomon Islands is once again at the center of a power game in the Pacific – a game that pits the United States and its strategic partners against its latest adversary, China.

News that the People’s Republic and the Solomons had signed a framework agreement on security cooperation sparked widespread unease on Tuesday in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where officials fear it could open up the way to a Chinese naval base in the Pacific. (World War II combat on Guadalcanal, the main island of the Solomons, was sparked by Tokyo’s decision in 1942 to move troops and workers to build an airfield, which would have given Japan an advantage over the Pacific theater.)

The fact that Beijing emerged victorious in this latest maritime battle for influence indicates that Australia’s 2016 policy of re-engagement with its Pacific neighbors – and a $1.5 billion infrastructure fund created two years earlier late – was found to be insufficient. Last week’s visit by Pacific Minister Zed Seselja to the Solomons appears to have done little to convince the government that Canberra was serious about supporting it. Solomons’ Leader of the Opposition told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he warned Canberra about the pending military deal as early as August last year and it came to nothing.

Canberra has long been guilty of mistreating its island neighbors – using them as expensive prisons for refugees and asylum seekers under its deeply criticized offshore detention regime, or neglecting the urgent and looming climate crisis that is hitting literally at the doorstep of the islanders. In 2015, Peter Dutton, then immigration minister and now defense minister, was caught on a hot microphone joking about the impact of rising sea levels on island nations. (At the time he was with Scott Morrison, who is now Prime Minister.)

A White House delegation due to arrive in the Solomons in the coming days – led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, in a tour that also includes Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii – appears also arrived too late. A draft proposal leaked last month said China could “conduct ship visits, conduct logistical resupply, and stop and transition in the Solomon Islands,” with Chinese forces to be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and great projects in Solomon”. He is.”

The United States has warned that the deal will leave the door open for the deployment of People’s Liberation Army troops to the Solomon Islands, located about 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) off the east coast of the United States. Australia and located on a key shipping route linking Australia, New Zealand, Asia and It sets “worrying precedent for the wider Pacific Islands region,” the State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday. , Ned Price.

Australia and the United States have been scrambling since news of the security deal broke, notes Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China and the Solomon Islands, director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Lowy Institute. And they have their work cut out for them. Many Pacific island countries have expressed concern that Western countries only pay attention to them when China is a factor, recalling that last-minute interventions are no substitute for long-term and sustained dialogue, Kassam said. .

The Solomon Islands officially severed ties with Taiwan in 2019. The decision split its political leadership with the opposition, arguing that relations with Beijing could jeopardize land rights, the rule of law and cultural heritage. Tensions came to a head last November with an outbreak of anti-China violence in the capital, Honiara. Beijing has sent police advisers to the archipelago; Australian peacekeepers have also been deployed, and they will remain on the ground until December 2023.

For its part, China said Pacific countries should diversify their foreign relations and criticized the US response to the deal. “Deliberately heightening tensions and provoking conflicting blocs does not get any support, and attempts to obstruct cooperation with China are doomed to fail,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday.

Beijing has long been growing its influence in the Pacific through both formal and informal channels, Hayley Channer, senior policy fellow at the Canberra-based Perth USAsia Center, tells me. Last year’s riots in the Solomons “opened the door for China to come up with a security pact like this – but this deal goes far beyond simply protecting Chinese citizens. It would be a way for the PLA to project its power closer to Australian shores, which is why Australia and the United States are concerned,” Channer said.

A few weeks before the Australian federal election on May 21, the agreement with China is a blow for Morrison, whose Conservative government is under pressure from the Labor Party. It crowns a tumultuous few years for relations between China, on the one hand, and Australia and the United States, on the other. A trade war that began under President Donald Trump’s administration has hit Australia hard – the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. Canberra’s decision to ban Huawei Technologies Co. from participating in its 5G network and the passage of anti-foreign interference laws have soured relations.

Canberra shouldn’t get mad, says Channer. He should get revenge, by convincing the Pacific island nations that what Australia and its allies have to offer – whether in defense cooperation, economic aid or critical infrastructure – is more convincing. But first, the allies must pull themselves together. Otherwise, Chinese influence will simply shift from one Pacific island to another.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Djokovic debacle exposes Australian xenophobia: Ruth Pollard

• US attempts Chinese ‘salami slicing’ to defend Taiwan: Hal Brands

• The Chinese Navy sets sail for the Atlantic: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor at Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was the South and Southeast Asia Government Team Leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focused on foreign policy, defense and security.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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