Guarding the Pacific: How Washington can Counter China in the Solomons and Beyond
By now, it should be abundantly clear that Solomon Islands, under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, is abandoning democracy and falling ever deeper into the orbit of the People’s Republic of China. Since coming to power in April 2019, the Sogavare government has taken a series of steps increasingly hostile to the interests of the United States, its allies, and broader regional stability. Fortunately, the dangers inherent in Chinese dominance of the Solomons seems to have aroused Washington to a heightened appreciation of the strategic importance of the South Pacific. Rather than facing the threat of Chinese power projection across Oceania in the event of conflict, the United States should act quickly to strengthen its South Pacific position and aid Canberra and Wellington’s efforts to do the same.
For a relatively small investment, Washington can dramatically up its game in the region. Currently, only three countries in Oceania have standing militaries: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga (Vanuatu uses a paramilitary police, the Vanuatu Mobile Force, as its primary armed force). For too long, Beijing has been permitted to gain significant inroads as the security partner of choice for these countries, primarily by filling gaps created when Western powers curtailed support in protest of domestic backsliding. Washington now has an opportunity to set aside past mistakes and enhance these important relationships. To do so, it should deepen its diplomatic engagement, enhance cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, and expand the popular State Partnership Program through which host governments can work with National Guard units of U.S. states.
The strategic logic of a robust American commitment to the South Pacific has remained unchanged since the 19th century, when President John Quincy Adams advocated a government-sponsored voyage of exploration to chart the region. Adams understood the South Pacific as a critical stepping stone to East Asia, both commercially and militarily. Later presidents would follow in Adams’ footsteps by acquiring U.S. coaling stations and naval bases across the Pacific, including in American Samoa. Through both world wars and the Cold War, it was understood by U.S. strategists that the South Pacific must remain free from domination by a rival power to facilitate U.S. forces moving from the West Coast and Hawaii to East Asia, as well as to ensure the resupply of Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, allied campaigns in World War II — from Coral Sea to Guadalcanal to New Guinea — were in part driven by this logic.
Were Beijing to acquire military access in the South Pacific, whether a permanent base or merely regular air or naval transit and refueling rights, it would represent a serious challenge to Washington’s centuries-old strategy. The Solomons are roughly 1,100 miles from northern Australia. A Chinese presence on the archipelago, or at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, would serve as a useful power projection tool into the critical sea lanes to and from Australia. The United States has recently become aware of the danger of China’s ambitions for potential military access in the Eastern Pacific nation of Kiribati, just 1,800 miles from Hawaii.
Now, developments in the Solomons are amplifying this threat. One of Sogavare’s first acts in office was switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Since then, the Solomons have been moving quickly toward China’s embrace, signing a security pact with Beijing in April 2022 and utilizing Chinese advisors to train the Solomon Islands police. The country has also inked a $66 million Chinese loan to build Huawei telecommunication towers.
In the meantime, Sogavare has made clear his disdain for the Solomons’ traditional security partners: the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy visited the Solomons in August, Sogavare pointedly declined to attend a ceremony commemorating the Battle of Guadalcanal, where over 7,000 Allied servicemen gave their lives. Shortly thereafter, his government failed to respond to requests from U.S. Coast Guard and British Royal Navy vessels for port calls. In the ensuing furor, Sogavare banned all foreign warship visits (although it is unclear whether this applies to China, given their security pact). Australia was later permitted to resume visits, while ships from the United States and the United Kingdom have remained restricted.
Ominously, Sogavare has paired his preference for Beijing with a decidedly authoritarian bent, proposing to postpone scheduled parliamentary elections on the dubious grounds that Solomon Islands cannot afford to host the upcoming Pacific Games while also upholding its democratic values. When Australia offered to fund the elections so they could occur as planned, Sogavare accused Canberra of inappropriate meddling in Honiara’s domestic affairs.
These developments in Solomon Islands are not an isolated incident in the South Pacific. It has been publicly reported that Beijing has actively sought military basing opportunities at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, Black Rock in Fiji, and Luganville Wharf in Vanuatu. Chinese economic influence, primarily through the Belt and Road Initiative, has been pernicious across the South Pacific, from Samoa to Vanuatu and even the Cook Islands, a self-governing island country in free association with New Zealand. As a result, China has saddled these states with unsustainable debt, while destabilizing local politics and disrupting traditional social patterns.
The Limits of Outsourcing
To date, the United States has attempted a logical division of labor across the Pacific Islands that utilizes the historical ties, geographic proximity, and cultural affinities of its Australian and New Zealand partners. Canberra has often focused on the Melanesian states of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, while Wellington devotes its resources to Polynesia: Samoa; Tonga; and the affiliated islands of Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau. The United States, through its Compacts of Free Association, has been traditionally interested in the Central and North Pacific states of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
In the current environment, with Chinese ambitions growing across the region (and U.S. direct interests under increasing threat), Washington can no longer afford to outsource its South Pacific diplomacy to Canberra and Wellington. Now is the time to expand the level of U.S. participation in the multilateral fora that dot the South Pacific, from the Pacific Community to the Forum Fisheries Agency. The Biden Administration’s decision to increase U.S. representation at the Pacific Islands Forum is a positive start, but embedding diplomatic and security observers and liaisons across multilateral organizations, ensuring high-level participation at regional meetings, and following through on the deliverables announced after these gatherings is a critical part of being a “Pacific Power” in both word and deed.
Washington’s regional policy effectiveness is often a direct result of its bureaucratic organizational chart. While the State Department has a deputy assistant secretary for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands within its Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Department of Defense places Oceania under a deputy assistant secretary for East Asia. Needless to say, the Pacific does not always receive the attention it requires when vying for visibility between Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The Pentagon should create a counterpart to the State Department’s position to ensure that the United States is bringing its full strategic attention to this critical region and that a senior official is directly responsible for implementing an aggressive agenda promoting U.S. interests.
This roadmap for an enhanced U.S. role in the South Pacific does not mean that Canberra and Wellington should no longer lead in Melanesia and Polynesia, respectively. In an era of constrained resources and vast commitments, the United States should make full use of its allies and partners. But recent events have also shown that, with Beijing’s march in the South Pacific accelerating, Washington should step up. American interests in Oceania can no longer be outsourced without risk.
Call In the National Guard
The U.S. National Guard is already playing an important role in expanding U.S. influence in the Pacific. For example, the Nevada National Guard’s program in Fiji and Tonga has served as an important link with military establishments that are being aggressively wooed by Beijing. In 2020, the Wisconsin National Guard established a State Partnership in Papua New Guinea. Under this program, local militaries are paired with U.S. National Guard units, who provide mentorship in key areas. In the Pacific Islands, training and practical advice on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-narcotics, and even unexplored ordnance disposal can build important relationships while providing invaluable skills.
But these programs must go further to include the police and paramilitary forces who serve as the primary armed force in most of Oceania. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, for instance, has been the recipient of significant attention from Beijing and should be included in the State Partnership Program. Police and law enforcement agencies across the region would benefit from the expertise brought by U.S. National Guard units. The Civic Action Team program is another effort that fits well in Oceania, and it is already being used in Palau and elsewhere. This program brings inter-service teams together with communities to conduct small-scale projects that produce material benefits and vast goodwill, whether by repairing bicycles for local children or helping harden key infrastructure during typhoon season. The ties accrued by these relationships will directly strengthen U.S. regional influence and provide a positive counterbalance to Beijing, particularly in the aftermath of events like the 2022 Tonga earthquake, where the U.S. response was pitiably lackluster compared to China’s.
The U.S. Coast Guard is another significant force multiplier for U.S. interests in Oceania. Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is among the greatest security challenges facing the Pacific islands, eroding sovereignty and devastating local economies and ecologies. China, with its global fishing fleet and disregard for basic norms of good behavior at sea, is a major perpetrator across the South Pacific. In this fight, the U.S. Coast Guard can partner with regional police and coast guards through Shiprider Agreements that embed local officers on U.S. vessels to patrol for illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. The Coast Guard needs more presence in the South Pacific and a more aggressive engagement strategy with Pacific partners like Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. To that end, the Biden Administration can complete its predecessor’s initiative to establish a permanent Coast Guard station on American Samoa. Stationing fast response cutters there would expand the Coast Guard’s presence in Oceania, counter illegal fishing and Chinese gray zone activities, and deepen ties with South Pacific countries who would reward increased American presence with trust, openness, and candor.
The lesson of the last several years in clear: Beijing is determined to gain a foothold in the South Pacific, posing a direct threat to long-term U.S. and allied interests. Without a coherent strategy of denial and the projection of appropriate U.S. power across this region, fundamental American interests will be threatened. It is time for the United States to support a robust array of defense initiatives across Oceania, including in countries where we remain openly, and rightly, concerned about democracy. By increasing our presence in and political connections to this dynamic region, the United States is more likely to play a constructive role in promoting good governance than if it continues to cede the field to Beijing and its proxies. By deploying more resources now, Washington has the opportunity to prevent an entirely unnecessary strategic surprise in the future.
Alexander B. Gray is a senior advisor at the Marathon Initiative. He previously served as deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff of the White House National Security Council (2019–2021) and as director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security at the National Security Council (2018–2019). He is currently writing a history of U.S. strategy in the Pacific Islands.
Correction: Due to a copy editing error, a previous version of this article stated that the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau are affiliated with Tonga. They are, in fact, part of the The Realm of New Zealand.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Quavaungh.