You may never have heard of the Solomon Islands, but foreign policy and defense experts certainly have heard of it. The nation was the site of the crucial battle of Guadalcanal during World War II, where the United States began to roll back Japanese conquests. The archipelago was then important because Japanese forces stationed there could threaten Allied positions in the South West Pacific and New Guinea, disrupting Australia’s supply routes from the United States. It’s a simple 1,100 miles from Australian air and naval bases in Cairns, Queensland, which means that Chinese forces based on the islands could threaten our ally as well as the sea lanes to the north and east, potentially disrupting US efforts to come to the aid of Taiwan if China were to to invade.
This is just the latest development in China’s long-running bid to gain influence in small, strategically located Pacific island nations. Lowy Institute of Australia reports that Beijing has spent around $170 million in aid to Pacific countries such as Kiribati, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. This has earned China a lot of goodwill and tangible benefits such as Kiribati’s decision open its waters to Chinese fishermen – a move Western analysts say will allow China to enter the region militarily.
Vanuatu, another island nation, denies that it will allow China to establish a naval base there, but a Chinese-funded port expansion project could allow for a civilian installation that could be quickly converted to military use in the future. China’s close ties to Fiji even prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit the small nation in February to bring him back to the western camp.
Reversing these Chinese gains is important for US strategy in the Pacific. Chinese bases in the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji would effectively control access to northeast Australia, forcing that nation to deploy its military assets to combat this threat rather than contributing to broader allied actions elsewhere in the world. Peaceful. Kiribati is only about 1,350 miles south of Naval Support Activity Pacific at Pearl Harbor. Even a marginal Chinese military presence in Kiribati would force US military planners to allocate scarce resources to defend against any threat, further weakening our ability to protect Taiwan, South Korea or Japan in the event of war.
The Biden administration is well aware of these challenges, but it could use bipartisan support from Congress for its initiatives in the Pacific. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to compete with China, and Republicans should be on board with funding this project. It is much cheaper to keep a nation out of China’s orbit than to build the military forces around it.
Both parties will have to ignore the fact that some of this money will go to potentially unsavory schemes. Tongafor example, is a constitutional monarchy where the king remains politically powerful and nobles hold nine of the 26 seats in the legislature. Fiji experienced two coups and a constitutional crisis since 2000. Six of these crucial nations are still criminalize homosexual relationships. None of this is pretty, but China will surely overlook a country’s commitment to democracy or modern conceptions of human rights. Letting our preferences get in the way of our interests is a surefire way to lose our global influence and increase the risk to national security.
Like it or not, the unipolar world in which the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in is over. Our adversaries can retaliate, and they are increasingly using every means at their disposal to repel American influence. Lose too many places like the Solomon Islands, and the Chinese threat will start to creep uncomfortably closer to you. Better to spend big and push outward now than to be locked in a corner later.