US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has confirmed the United States plans to open an embassy in the South Pacific nation of Solomon Islands in an effort to counter China’s influence in the politically troubled Pacific Islands.
The announcement on Saturday comes as Blinken visits Fiji for talks with Pacific Islands leaders, with Washington promising more diplomatic and security resources to the region.
In a notification to Congress, the State Department said Solomon Islanders cherished their history with Americans on the battlefields of World War II, but that the US was in danger of losing its preferential ties as China “aggressively seeks to engage” elite politicians and business people in the Solomon Islands.
The move comes after rioting rocked the nation of 700,000 in November. The riots grew from a peaceful protest and highlighted long-simmering regional rivalries, economic problems and concerns about the country’s increasing links with China. Rioters set fire to buildings and looted stores.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote the following month, telling legislators in a fiery 90-minute speech that he had done nothing wrong and would not bow down to “the forces of evil” or to “Taiwan’s agents”.
The US previously operated an embassy in the Solomons for five years before closing it in 1993. Since then, US diplomats from neighbouring Papua New Guinea have been accredited to the Solomons, which has a US consular agency.
The embassy announcement fits with a new Biden administration strategy for the Indo-Pacific that was announced on Friday and emphasises building partnerships with allies in the region as a way to counter China’s growing influence and ambitions.
The State Department said China had been “utilising a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous debt levels” when engaging with political and business leaders from the Solomon Islands.
“The United States has a strategic interest in enhancing our political, economic, and commercial relationship with Solomon Islands, the largest Pacific Island nation without a US embassy,” the State Department wrote.
The State Department said it did not expect to build a new embassy immediately but would at first lease space at an initial set-up cost of $12.4m. The embassy would be located in the capital, Honiara, and would start small, with two US employees and about five local staff.
The State Department said the Peace Corps was planning to reopen an office in the Solomon Islands and have its volunteers serve there, and that several US agencies were establishing government positions with portfolios in the Solomons.
“The Department needs to be part of this increased US presence, rather than remaining a remote player,” it wrote.
Blinken arrived in Fiji on Saturday after visiting the Australian city of Melbourne where he had a meeting with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan.
The four nations form the so-called “Quad”, a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies that was created to counter China’s regional influence.
In Fiji, Blinken plans to meet Pacific Islands leaders to discuss the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and disaster assistance. It was the first visit by a US secretary of state to Fiji since 1985.