The Biden administration is plowing ahead with plans to re-open the US embassy in the Solomon Islands in a bid to counter China's increasing assertiveness in the Pacific.
The State Department has informed Congress that it will establish soon an interim embassy in the Solomons' capital of Honiara on the site of a former US consular property.
It said the modest embassy will at first be staffed by two American diplomats and five local employees at a cost of USD 1.8 million per year. A more permanent facility with larger staffing is eventually envisioned, it said.
The department notified lawmakers nearly a year ago that China's growing influence in the region made re-opening the US embassy in the Solomon Islands a priority. Since that notification last February, the Solomons have signed a security pact with China and the US has countered by sending several high-level delegations to the islands.
The US closed its embassy in Honiara in 1993 as part of a post-Cold War global reduction in diplomatic posts and priorities.
But it has since determined that China's rise as a regional and global power demands American attention as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing, particularly in the Solomon Islands, which were a key battleground in the Pacific theatre during WWII and where pro-American sentiment had been high.
“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 notice to Congress dated December 23 that was obtained by The Associated Press.
“The United States needs a permanent diplomatic presence in Honiara to effectively provide a counterweight to growing (Chinese) influence and deepen our engagement with the region commensurate with its importance,” the notice said.
“Before (China) becomes strongly embedded in Solomon Islands, now is the opportunity to bolster Solomon Islands' resilience and deepen cooperation on security, democratic governance, and a free and open economy,” it said.
“The absence of an embassy has severely constrained our ability to engage with this strategically situated country with alacrity and precision.” Since the administration first announced its plan to re-open the US embassy in the Solomons in February, the nation moved ahead with a security pact with China, sparking fears that Beijing might establish a military base on the islands.
China has also increased its economic and infrastructure assistance to the Solomons as it has done with other Pacific islands.
The Solomon Islands prime minister assured the US and other Western allies, like Australia and New Zealand, after signing the deal with Beijing in April that he would not allow China to set up a naval base in his country, but concern about Chinese intentions has not abated.
In July, the US sent two senior officials — Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy — to the Solomons to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal and to highlight nearly century-long ties between the islands and the US.
The fathers of both Sherman and Kennedy fought in the Solomons during the war.
As it moves to enhance ties with the Solomon Islands, the US is also seeking to shore up relations with other Pacific nations that it fears may also be drawn into China's orbit.
Negotiations are ongoing for the renewal of so-called “Compact of Free Association" agreements between the US and the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Those pacts expire within the next two years.
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In late September, President Joe Biden convened a summit of Pacific Island leaders to unveil a new strategy for the region that included pressing issues like climate change, maritime security and protecting the area from overfishing.
Biden pledged that the US would add USD 810 million in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including USD 130 million on efforts to stymie the impacts of climate change.
The White House also announced plans to recognize the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, after “appropriate consultations.” The US currently recognises the islands as self-governing territories.
At the time, White House officials acknowledged that US inattentiveness toward the region since the end of the Cold War has left an opening for Beijing to exert its influence.