The Pacific summit under President Biden’s leadership faced a setback when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands chose not to participate, leading to disappointment on the part of the United States in the midst of the regional competition with China. Pacific Islands summit without participation of Solomon Islands indicates potential in China’s counter-US strategy. However, this also signifies the bargaining capabilities of these strategically important locations in the US-China strategic competition being played under the integrated deterrence mechanisms.
Notably, in April, 2022, China confirmed a covert five-year security accord with the Solomon Islands, characterized as a ‘treaty’ by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Although not officially disclosed, the leaked draft has originated from within the Solomon Islands government. The pact carries profound implications, particularly for China, the Solomon Islands, Australia, and the United States. The strategic positioning of the Solomon Islands holds the potential to exert control over critical sea and airspace regions, posing a threat to communication channels vital to the United States and its Pacific partners, notably Australia. The establishment of a Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands could disrupt military support for Taiwan. Furthermore, even the presence of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facility for intelligence operations and patrols in the Solomon Islands would intricately complicate defense strategizing, primarily for Australia and to a lesser extent for the United States.
The Solomon Islands’ strategic importance to the United States is multifaceted. Firstly, its geostrategic location within the South Pacific Ocean positions it between the U.S. and Australia, a region of growing importance in U.S. foreign policy and strategic considerations within the Indo-Pacific. This location has the potential to influence trade routes and maritime security dynamics. Secondly, the proximity of the Solomon Islands to the second island chain, a significant element in U.S. military strategy, presents opportunities for force projection, logistical support, and naval operations, thereby enhancing U.S. military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Thirdly, the United States maintains alliances and partnerships with Pacific nations like Australia and New Zealand, who share interests in the Solomon Islands. Therefore, the Solomon Islands have become a focal point in the competition for influence between the U.S. and China in the South Pacific. China’s efforts to expand its presence through investments and infrastructure projects in the region necessitate U.S. efforts to counterbalance Chinese influence, safeguard its interests, and uphold regional stability.
The United States is addressing its prior neglect of the Oceania region by, for instance, reopening its embassy in Honiara and committing to a substantive bilateral dialogue with the Solomon Islands. In anticipation of potential escalations, the U.S. has conveyed its preparedness to take appropriate measures should the Solomon Islands proceed with actions aimed at establishing a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or military installations in the region. Notably, Australia is confronted with significant hurdles in its efforts to counter China’s expanding influence in the Southwest Pacific. This challenge is exacerbated by the internal divisions within the Pacific Island Forum, a critical regional multilateral organization, which China has leveraged to its advantage in consolidating its sway.
Asia-Pacific, and specifically Oceania, has emerged as a focal point of geopolitical competition, primarily involving the United States and its allies in efforts to counterbalance China’s regional influence. Simultaneously, these islands also occupy centrality in China’s integrated deterrence framework against the U.S. strategy dealing with the region. Consequently, the Pacific Islands grapple with the imperative of ensuring authentic partnership dynamics, safeguarding their autonomy amid the global geopolitical rivalry.
The United States has solidified its preeminence in the region, boasting an extensive military presence with strategically positioned bases in Hawai’i, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Australia. Notably, the Indo-Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawai’i, possesses an unparalleled geographic jurisdiction relative to its regional counterparts. A noteworthy aspect is the substantial U.S. military presence in Guam, which occupies approximately 30% of the island’s territory. Recent developments include Palau’s invitation to the United States for the establishment of a military base and radar facility, a similar initiative in the Federated States of Micronesia, and collaborative efforts between the United States and Australia to upgrade the Lombrum naval base in Manus, Papua New Guinea. These developments underscore the evolving dynamics of U.S. strategic presence and cooperation in the region with the Pacific Islands.
The significance of Pacific islands for the US integrated deterrence strategy against China is multi-faceted. These islands are strategically located in the Indo-Pacific region, making them crucial hubs for various aspects of the strategy. Firstly, their strategic location allows them to serve as vital nodes in maritime trade routes which is essential for the economic dimension of the strategy. Secondly, Pacific islands offer potential support for US military operations, providing access to ports and airfields for logistical purposes and potential bases for forward deployment, thus enhancing the military dimension of the strategy. Thirdly, they can serve as platforms for intelligence gathering and surveillance activities, bolstering the intelligence and surveillance dimension. Additionally, Pacific islands play a pivotal role in regional diplomacy to counter China’s regional influence: strengthening partnerships with them allows the US to promote shared values, enhance regional security, and address common challenges, aligning with the diplomatic aspect of the strategy. They contribute to the effectiveness of the US integrated deterrence strategy against China in the Indo-Pacific region.
In parallel to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which directs significant shifts in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s strategic interests in Pacific islands are also integral to its comprehensive deterrence strategy within the broader Indo-Pacific context. China’s military interests in these islands are discernible from its overarching military modernization endeavors, aimed at bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific. This modernization encompasses investments in naval capabilities, including aircraft carriers, submarines, and advanced missile systems, positioning China to project power in the Pacific and reinforce its deterrence strategy. These military interests are closely linked to China’s broader geopolitical objectives, such as securing access to strategic sea routes, defending maritime claims, and countering the influence of regional powers, particularly the United States.
China’s participation in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where several Pacific islands are located, as well as its construction and militarization of artificial islands in the region, underscore its commitment to strengthening its presence in the Pacific. Additionally, China has pursued military diplomacy and expanded military partnerships in Pacific islands, conducting joint exercises, providing military aid, and establishing military bases or access agreements, all contributing to an augmented military presence, influence, and power projection capabilities in the Pacific islands as part of its integrated deterrence strategy in the Pacific.