But the signing of a new pact between China and Solomon Islands alarmed the White House, prompting a high-level US delegation – led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator, Kurt Campbell, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink – to meet with members of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government last Friday to discuss their concerns.
Security experts have warned that the Chinese government could exploit the caretaker period during the federal election and establish a military foothold in the Pacific nation less than 2000 kilometres off Australia’s east coast within the next four weeks following the pattern of rapid development of bases in the South China Sea.
After the meeting, the US announced it would expedite the opening of an embassy in Solomon Islands and warned the Pacific nation that it would “respond accordingly” if steps are taken allowing China to establish a military base there.
But while Sogavare assured the US delegation that there would be no military base or long-term presence as a result of the deal, many in Washington remain unconvinced.
“The fact that the agreement was made before Campbell arrived plainly does not pass the smell test,” said Courtney.
“We’ve seen this movie before, where China has steadily but surely militarised the South China Sea – and now they’re moving a little further south into the Solomon seas – with a process that they claim at the outset is benign and then steadily transforms into full-throated installation of military capability.
“It’s like boiling a frog where you turn up the temperature, bit by bit. We can’t let it happen like that and I do think there will be more and more focus and discussion in Congress.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Thursday escalated Australia’s pressure on China and the Solomons to publicly release the text of final agreement, saying it was a “deal that has been kept secret at the insistence of a partner”.
While a draft of the deal leaked on March 24, triggering widespread protests from Indo-Pacific neighbours, Sogavare did not back away from inking the final agreement. While he told his parliament they’d entered the security pact “with our eyes wide open guided by our national interest”, the final details are still secret.
With Congress back this week after an Easter recess, the deal between China and Solomon Islands was raised by Courtney on Tuesday night during a dinner with members of the Armed Services Committee.
Courtney is also a member of the newly formed “AUKUS Caucus”, a special working group designed to sharpen Congress’ focus on the submarine pact signed last year between Australia, the UK and the US. He is also the chair of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, which oversees the US Navy and Marine Corps.
Others outside Congress have also raised concerns, urging the US and Australia to step up to prevent similar deals in the region.
“Washington, Canberra and their allies will have to pay far greater attention to this part of the world,” said Charles Edel, the Australia chair of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies, one of Washington’s leading think tanks.
“They will need to adjust their strategies, work more closely with the Pacific Island nation governments, and identify incentives to offer these countries.”
Earlier this month, Biden’s pick to be the new US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, said the move to reopen an American embassy in Solomon Islands “can’t come soon enough” considering China’s overtures.
The US is also working on an Indo-Pacific economic framework that it hopes will strengthen America’s ties in the region, shore up supply chains and ultimately make US allies less vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion.