NOOSA – It seems Kurt Campbell, the United States Indo-Pacific coordinator, will still visit the Solomon Islands this week even after the country declared it had already entered into a security pact with China.
A last ditch effort by Australia failed to change the mind of the Solomons leadership as the Morrison government was strongly criticised for its ineffectual Pacific Islands policies that it is claimed, not altogether credibly, to have enabled China to gain a military foothold in the Solomons, just 2,000 km from mainland Australia.
It will be fascinating to see if the White House’s Campbell and Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department's top East Asian and Pacific official, and their delegation of defence and development aid experts can induce a change of heart.
Chinese sources have commented that the severity of the US and Australia reaction shows that they “use the South Pacific region as an ‘arena’ for competition with China and try to contain China's peaceful development”.
Yang Honglian, senior researcher at the Pacific Islands Research Center in Liaocheng University, who is based in Fiji, told Global Times that “in the US and its follower Australia's Cold War mentality, South Pacific countries have always been, and must be, their ‘backyard’.”
Global Times, billed as “China’s most belligerent tabloid”, is owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s favourite organ and “paramount mouthpiece”, the People’s Daily.
The Global Times dismisses US attempts to counter China's rising influence with the words “history shows that US promises are often hard to deliver and such cooperation rarely delivers real benefits to ordinary people”.
There is a view in China that the US is stricken by a psychological condition known as projection – where a person projects their negative traits or view onto others.
“They (the US) believe that controlling the island nations through military deployment can maintain their influence in the region, so they speculated China would also take the same step even if China does not have any military activity in the region,” was Yang’s analysis.
“They have been hyping a ‘possibility’ and ‘sense of urgency’, trying to guide the local sentiment to be more wary of China,” he said.
Another Chinese official, Wang Wenbin of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, yesterday stated:
"The US Embassy in Solomon Islands has been closed for 29 years. The most recent visit to Fiji made by a US Secretary of State was 37 years ago.
“Several senior US officials now fancy a visit to some Pacific Island countries all of a sudden after all these years.
“Are they doing so out of care for Pacific Island countries or do they have ulterior motives?”
“"Sensationalising an atmosphere of tension and stoking bloc confrontation will get no support in the region.”
Which, given US and Australian inattention in the region over all the years they have known of China’s ambitions was fair comment indeed.
And Wang made another good point. “Rather than becoming someone's backyard or pawn in a geopolitical confrontation, Pacific island countries need diversified external cooperation and the free choice of their cooperation partners,” he said
A Chinese businessman in Honiara told Global Times that the Chinese community greatly supports cooperation on security.
He said that the police in the Solomons lack professional training and their equipment is outdated. "We hope their police force can improve after cooperating with China,” he said.
Meanwhile the US State Department’s Ned Price sought to play down the diplomatic flurry.
“US policy toward the region is about ensuring countries understand the benefits of engagement with Washington and not about China or any other country,” he said.
“We'll leave it to them [the Pacific Islands] to contrast what we offer from what other countries, including rather large countries in the region, might offer,” Price said diplomatically.
Australia’s defence minister threw another can of kerosene on the fire, commenting that China hopes to gain a military foothold in the Pacific Islands, including a ‘military port’ in PNG.
That can’t be in Manus because Australia already grabbed that back in 2018 when China offered to redevelop the old Lorengau naval base.
So could Dutton have been referring to all the kerfuffle about Daru?
Or maybe he was just keeping the anti-China fire burning steadily in the hope it may wedge the Labor Party during the current election campaign.
China believes that Washington sees the Pacific Islands as an important ‘fulcrum’ against China and that is why “the US now leaves Australia aside and intervened more directly in the region.”
And what does the Solomon Islands government think.
“Australia wants the Solomon Islands to just follow what it says,” states Frank Sade Bilaupaine, policy consultant in the Solomons’ foreign policy advisory secretariat.
“But it's the US behind all this pushing,” he told Global Times.
He said the security agreement “came about because of the riots in Honiara for the past years and Chinese businesses were always the victim.
"So the Solomon Islands government views it as, since we have diplomatic relations, maybe China can assist in building the capacity of the Solomon Islands police.”
Local scholar George Balau said: “China has always insisted its eyes are firmly fixed on mutual economic progress - a win-win situation - rather than military contest or a zero-sum game.
“In other words, China is asking that Australia and the US set aside their Cold War mentality to prevent unnecessary stand-offs based on assumptions of strategic malevolent calculations.”
So there, simples.
Main sources: Nikkei Asia, Global Times