WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The US says it will open an embassy in the Solomon Islands and, in unusually blunt terms, lays out a plan to increase its influence in the South Pacific nation before China becomes “heavily embedded.”
The rationale was explained in a State Department memo to Congress made available to The Associated Press. It comes as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the Pacific and meets diplomats from Japan, South Korea, Australia, Fiji and other nations.
The State Department said Solomon Islanders cherished their history with Americans on the battlefields of World War II, but the US was at risk of losing its privileged relationship as China “aggressively seeks to hire elite politicians and businessmen in Solomon Islands.”
The move comes after unrest shook the nation of 700,000 people in November. The unrest has emerged from a peaceful protest and has highlighted long-simmering regional rivalries, economic woes and concerns about the country’s increasing ties to China. Rioters set fire to buildings and looted shops.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote the following month and told lawmakers in a fiery 90-minute speech that he had done nothing wrong and would not bow to “the forces of evil” or “Taiwan’s agents.” ”
The US previously operated an embassy in the Solomon Islands for five years before closing it in 1993. Since then, US diplomats from neighboring Papua New Guinea who have a US consular post have been accredited to the Solomon Islands.
The message’s announcement aligns with a new government strategy by Biden for the Indo-Pacific announced Friday and emphasizes building partnerships with allies in the region to counter China’s growing influence and ambitions.
In its memo to Congress, the State Department said China had “used a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, likely costly infrastructure loans and potentially dangerous debt levels” in working with Solomon Islands political and business leaders.
“The United States has a strategic interest in improving our political, economic and commercial ties with the Solomon Islands, the largest Pacific island nation without a US embassy,” the State Department wrote.
The State Department said it does not expect to build a new embassy immediately, but would first lease premises at an initial facility cost of $12.4 million. The embassy would be based in the capital, Honiara, and start small, with two US employees and about five local staff.
The State Department said the Peace Corps plans to reopen an office and deploy its volunteers in the Solomon Islands, and that several US agencies are establishing government posts with portfolios in the Solomon Islands.
“The Department must be part of this increased US presence, rather than remain a distant actor,” it wrote.
Blinken left for Fiji on Saturday after visiting the Australian city of Melbourne where he had a meeting with his fellow Australians, Indians and Japanese. The four nations form the so-called “Quad,” a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies created to counter China’s regional influence.
Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.