In the Solomon Islands, a US agency’s struggles hint at China’s influence

The Peace Corps has yet to return to Pacific island nation more than four years after Washington touted its return.

Solomon Islands has bolstered ties with China in recent years [File: Pringi Charley/AFP]

Taipei, Taiwan – In October 2019, the United States announced that the Peace Corps, the storied volunteer programme established by John F Kennedy, would return to the Solomon Islands after a two-decade absence.

The announcement was the latest in a flurry of moves by Washington to counter China’s growing presence in Pacific island nations like the Solomon Islands, a sparsely populated but strategically located archipelago that lies about 2,000km northeast of Australia.

More than four years later, the Peace Corps has yet to arrive, even as volunteers have returned to other nations in the Pacific such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa following the suspension of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, the Peace Corps continues to miss deadlines to secure funding from the US Congress to support its work in the Solomon Islands. Just $500 was allocated for the programme’s work in the archipelago of about 700,000 people for the fiscal year 2024.

Neither Washington nor Honiara have officially given any indication that the return of the Peace Corps is not proceeding as planned.

But behind the scenes, there are suspicions that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is deliberately stalling for political reasons – specifically, to placate China, which has made major inroads in the archipelago in recent years.

“The Chinese influenced the Solomon Islands cabinet’s decision to pause approval for the Peace Corps to return to the islands,” a former US official, who is familiar with the negotiations to bring back the Peace Corps, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

The ex-official said that, based on discussions with officials involved in the negotiations, the agreement appeared to have been postponed “indefinitely”.

“Initial euphoria over the US announcement that Peace Corps Volunteers would return was dampened by senior Solomon Islands officials as they introduced delay after delay in negotiating the Peace Corps agreement,” the former official said.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (left) has forged closer relations with China and its leader Xi Jinping [File: cnsphoto via Reuters]

The US State Department and US embassy in Honiara, which was opened in February, did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The Peace Corps declined to provide a comment, although its 2024 budget report released in March stated the agency was “close to finalising agreements” with the Solomon Islands.

China’s embassy in Honiara said the return of the Peace Corps was a matter for the governments of the Solomon Islands and the US, and that inquiries should be directed to the “relevant stakeholders”.

Peter Kenilorea Jr, an opposition MP in the Solomon Islands, said the unexplained delays reflected the “geopolitical climate” under Sogavare.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything negative about the Peace Corps’ work in the past, so for me, I think it just underscores that this delay is about politics and has very little to do about the work that the Peace Corps would be bringing In,” Kenilorea Jr, who did not specifically point to China as a possible factor in the delays, told Al Jazeera.

The Peace Corps’ apparent difficulties in the Solomon Islands point to the seeming limits of Washington’s ability to stymie China’s rising influence in the Pacific.

Beijing’s inroads in the region have been especially visible in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, where Sogavare has pursued deeper relations with his Chinese counterparts in earnest since his election to a fourth stint in power in 2019.

In 2019, Honiara ended its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favour of recognising China, and in 2022 and July, respectively, signed a pair of security and policing agreements with Beijing that drew protests from the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Solomon Islands President Manasseh Sogavare cut ties with Taiwan in 2019 [File: Sam Yeh/AFP]

Sogavare has defended his government’s deepening relationship with China, insisting his country does not choose sides between great powers and accusing the US and its allies of “un-neighbourly” criticism.

In August, the Solomon Islands leader declined to meet with two visiting US lawmakers, one of whom later likened Beijing’s relations with the country to a “viper slithering around its prey”.

During a visit to the US in September to speak at the UN General Assembly, Sogavare skipped a meeting at the White House between US President Joe Biden and other Pacific leaders.

Sogavare, who had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in July, told reporters he hoped to avoid a “lecture” by the Americans.

Celsus Talifilu, a former political adviser in the Solomon Islands, said it was “hard to deny the strong possibility” that the government is dragging its heels due to its relationship with China.

“Basically, the current [ government] is a pro-China government and anti-Western, especially the likes of Sogavare himself,” Talifilu, whose former boss, Daniel Suidani, clashed with Honiara over its China policy while serving as governor of Malaita Province, told Al Jazeera.

For Sogavare, the delays may help bolster a narrative that the US has neglected the Pacific, said Graeme Smith, an associate professor at Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs.

“There’s more than an element of truth about it,” Smith told Al Jazeera.

“By delaying the Peace Corps, they can still effectively run the narrative that the US is still neglecting them.”

Even before the diplomatic shift under Sogavare, the US was not popular with everyone in the Solomon Islands.

The islands were a major battleground for US and Japanese forces during World War II, resulting in the killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Tens of thousands of unexploded munitions were left behind from the war, killing or injuring residents to this day.

Solomon Islands was the site of fierce fighting between the United States and Japan during WWII [File: Madeleine Coorey/AFP]

For countries like the Solomon Islands, which may have felt like junior partners in their relationships with the US, Australia and New Zealand, China’s expansion into the Pacific changed the dynamic by offering an alternative source of funding.

Among other benefits, China provided the Solomon Islands with a $66m loan to build cell phone towers and $120m to build new facilities for the recently concluded 2023 Pacific Games.

Western officials fear such largesse is an example of China laying the groundwork for an expanded military presence in the Pacific, possibly including a naval base in Solomon Islands or another Pacific island nation.

Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the only party that benefits from the Peace Corps not returning is China.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] sees anything good being developed by someone else, as damaging to PRC interests,” Paskal told Al Jazeera, adding that, based on her discussions with officials, there is an assumption within the US government that politics are at play.

“Think about it. We talk about the Peace Corps being part of US soft power. Why would China want to facilitate something that helps the US? Given how pro-PRC this administration is, it’s not surprising if there is stalling. It blocks out the US and gives China the time to embed unfettered.”

Despite the geopolitical stakes involved, US officials believe that Sogavare’s tilt towards Beijing may be as much about domestic politics as international relations.

“Prime Minister Sogavare has no choice but to cleave to the People’s Republic of China [PRC] for his political survival and legacy but not all Solomon Islanders support the Sogavare-PRC symbiotic relationship,” US diplomats said last year in a cable obtained by Al Jazeera via a freedom of information request.

ANU’s Smith said Sogavare’s approach to governance had won him significant attention from both the US and China, including meetings with Xi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US presidential adviser Kurt Campbell.

“By doing this, he gets the attention, he gets the headlines. Whereas if he didn’t do all this what pantomime would he have?” Smith said.

“This never happened in the past. It was just literally crickets in Honiara, and suddenly, he’s at the centre of geopolitical events.”

Source: Al Jazeera