A high-ranking US delegation descends on the Solomon Islands on Saturday, as Washington wrestles with Beijing for influence in the region, months after the Pacific nation signed a secret security deal with China.
China’s growing power in the Asia-Pacific will be on display later this week as it continues to stage military exercises besieging Taiwan in a show of strength following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing island.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman leads a US delegation visiting the Solomons for three days to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Sherman’s father was a Marine who was mortally wounded in battle, a major attack spanning six months in 1942 and 1943, prompting the Japanese withdrawal and marking the start of major Allied operations in the Pacific.
The United States announced this year that it plans to re-establish an embassy in the Solomons, nearly 30 years after the closure of its last mission.
China, which has an embassy in the Solomons with close ties to its government, worried Western rivals by signing an undisclosed security deal with the island in April.
The deal, which critics fear could give China a military foothold in the South Pacific, is likely high on the US travel agenda.
“It is difficult for the US to walk in the sense that obviously Prime Minister Manasseh Sogaware values his country’s relations with China,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. AFP.
“The notion that he will have to choose between the US and China is not welcome. He will find a way to work with both the US and China.”
But not everyone in Solomon supports the growing security ties with China, he said: “It’s a double-edged sword.”
Solomon broke ties with Taiwan in September 2019 in favor of diplomatic ties with China, a switch that unlocked investment but stymied intercontinental rivalry.
Last November, protests against Sogaware’s regime turned into riots in the capital Honiara, during which much of the city’s Chinatown was set on fire, before Australia launched an international peacekeeping mission to help restore peace. led.
On the domestic front, the Solomon prime minister is being accused by the opposition of undermining democracy.
Sogaware has reiterated his government’s intention to postpone the general elections from next April until after the Pacific Games, which Solomons organizes in November 2023.
China is reportedly funding a $53 million national stadium complex to host the Games.
‘War on media freedom’
The Solomon leader has also drawn criticism for attacking the public broadcaster, Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation.
This week, Sogaware’s office accused the broadcaster of spreading “lies and misinformation”, saying it neglected its duty to “practice, fair, responsible and ethical journalism”.
The prime minister’s office said standards in local media “have come to a point over the years where a lot gets published just to make money.”
In response, the International Federation of Journalists warned against “an attack on freedom of the press and … an unacceptable development for the democratic political process”.
The federation had already raised concerns when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Solomon Islands in May.
The tour was heavily restricted press conferences, with local journalists collectively confined to a question for Wang.